Some people finally noticed Bryan Pesta

Bryan Pesta no longer has a job. This is good news; Pesta was a professor at Cleveland State who was notorious for publishing racist ideas and promoting the work of his fellow racists. I wish that were enough to have gotten him fired, but it wasn’t — it took a lot of effort to expose him and discredit his work.

Publications like Pesta’s may fly under the academic radar, but can seep into popular misperceptions of race and lend them a scholarly veneer. Pesta was heavily involved, for example, in editing a 2010 version of Wikipedia’s article on race and intelligence, according to the site’s discussion-forum archives. At the time, the article cited both Pesta’s work and that of other “racial hereditarians.” The racist manifesto of Peyton Gendron, the man accused of murdering 10 Black people at a Buffalo grocery store this year, cited some of Pesta’s racial-hereditarian colleagues and predecessors.

Despite nearly a dozen publications over more than a decade arguing for the intellectual inferiority of Black people, Pesta earned merit pay for research and eventually promotion and tenure at Cleveland State. Finally, this year, after researchers at other institutions filed complaints, the university fired him.

But those complaints weren’t about the legitimacy of his research.

I knew about Pesta. RationalWiki had a short article on him (which needs to be updated, it still reports he is a professor). Is there just a tiny and frequently ignored minority of people who are aware of the hereditarian infection in popular science? It’s not as if he was subtle and hiding in the shadows.

Many of his papers about race ran in Intelligence, a peer-reviewed journal that has drawn fire for publishing other racial-hereditarian arguments. Three of his articles appeared in Mankind Quarterly, which a writer in The New York Review of Books once called “a notorious journal of ‘racial history’ founded, and funded, by men who believe in the genetic superiority of the white race.” Two were published in the Journal of Intelligence, an international, open-access periodical that advertises its quick review and publication process.

Many racial hereditarians present their claims as widely accepted but deliberately suppressed facts in the scientific community. They blame the political correctness of academe for their difficulty publishing in well-respected journals.

Publishing in Mankind Quarterly ought to be regarded as a great blaring klaxon alerting you that there is a huge fucking problem here.

Also concerning: Pesta has legitimate academic qualifications, “with bachelor’s, an M.A., and a master’s in labor relations and human services,” and also has a doctorate in psychology. Do you notice what’s missing? He has no background in biology or genetics, but he’s pushing radical distortions of genetics and using poor genetics methodology. From the description of his research, I’m unimpressed.

Pesta’s papers also consistently maintain that racial gaps in test scores can’t be explained by factors like discrimination or economic status. In 2008, for example, he published an article in Intelligence arguing that the gap between Black and white students’ IQ scores could be explained entirely by Black students’ lower intelligence rather than any bias in intelligence measures.

The article relied on a study of 179 students in Cleveland State’s introductory accounting courses categorized as either Black or white. Pesta’s co-author was a CSU accounting professor, Peter J. Poznanski, who has since retired. The university did not appear to be bothered by the article, even linking to it on its “EngagedScholarship@CSU” page. (After The Chronicle inquired about the paper, the university left up the abstract but removed the link.)

Wait, what? He makes sweeping conclusions that black people are intrinsically less intelligent than white people on the basis of a tiny study of his own students, categorizing them as black and white, and then…what? Assessing their intelligence on the basis of their performance in an introductory accounting course? That’s nuts. I wonder if the students knew they were being measured up as exemplars of particular races. Cleveland State seems to have had no problem with this kind of biased and inappropriate analysis.

Even if his methodology wasn’t weak and flawed, his ability to interpret the data ought to be called into question.

A 2014 paper Pesta published in Intelligence, “Only in America: Cold Winters Theory, Race, IQ, and Well-Being,” takes up the historically baseless theory that people who evolved in cold climates — Europeans and Asians — became smarter because cold winters made survival more difficult. Pesta’s paper finds that IQ and average temperature are correlated in U.S. states even though nearly all their residents are descended from people who came to America within the last 400 years, meaning the supposed difference couldn’t have been caused by evolution in place.

Instead, he proposes another hypothesis, the “founder effect,” arguing that certain types of people, genetically and culturally, were drawn to certain communities and areas — ignoring America’s long history of forced migration for people of color. He does add, though, that it’s “possible that significant historical events” — he mentions the Civil War but not slavery or segregation — could have also created regional differences in well-being and education. He also writes that his study doesn’t disprove the Cold Winters Theory, but shows only that phenomena other than evolution can drive geographic differences in IQ scores.

Wow. The reviewers were lying down on the job with that one — it should have been instantly rejected, unless the journal Intelligence just has appallingly low standards.

That didn’t get Pesta fired, though. What did get him axed was the discovery that he’d violated the terms of service in using (well, misusing and abusing) a confidential NIH database. Crossing NIH, from whom all blessings and large grants flow, is a really bad idea, not just for the individual researcher but for his institution.

Independently, Kent Taylor had a similar reaction to Pesta’s new work. Taylor, a molecular biologist and genomics researcher at the University of California at Los Angeles, wasn’t familiar with Pesta but found the article methodologically shoddy.

More important, he couldn’t see how such a paper could have passed ethical muster with the NIH.

Taylor fired off emails to the NIH, Cleveland State, and the University of Minnesota* alerting them to the article.

Taylor’s letter to Harlan M. Sands, who until this past April was CSU’s president, was short and to the point. It called Pesta’s article “both a violation of the data-use agreement and unethical.”

That was the last straw. He’s outta there.

Cleveland State declared that Pesta had been incompetent or dishonest in teaching or scholarship; neglected his duty, and engaged in personal conduct that substantially impaired the fulfillment of his institutional responsibilities; and interfered with the normal operations of the university. The letter declared Bloomberg’s decision to fire Pesta.

Pesta was officially fired on March 4, 2022, two and a half years after his article was published.

Unfortunately, the lingering stench of his published papers remains, still being cited, still being trotted out in every pseudoscientific argument by a Nazi on Twitter.


* Unfortunately, one of Pesta’s co-authors, Jordan Lasker claims to be affiliated with UM’s school of economics. He is not listed anywhere in my university’s directories, and seems instead to be at Texas Tech University? All these guys seem dodgy to me.

Can you teach organic chemistry?

We’re hiring for a tenure-track position!

The University of Minnesota Morris seeks an individual committed to excellence in undergraduate education, to fill a tenure-track position in chemistry beginning August 14, 2023. Responsibilities include: Teaching a wide range of undergraduate chemistry courses including organic chemistry lectures and labs and an advanced elective; advising undergraduates; conducting research that could involve undergraduates; and sharing in the governance and advancement of the Chemistry program, the division, interdisciplinary programs, and the campus.

Applicants must hold or expect to receive a Ph.D. in chemistry or a related field by August 14, 2023. Evidence of excellence in teaching and mentoring undergraduate chemistry students is required. A minimum of one year experience teaching undergraduate organic chemistry is required; graduate TA experience is acceptable. Preference will be given to applicants with more than one year experience teaching undergraduate chemistry and with demonstrated research and/or teaching experience in sustainable/green or environmental chemistry.

(If you’re wondering why I, a mere biologist, am promoting a chemistry job search, it’s because a) we biologists depend on a strong chemistry program, and b) I’ve been roped into serving on the search committee.)

A flimsy excuse to do nothing

When science is being faked in the published literature, that is a big problem. You’d think the gatekeepers would want to do something about it.

In a new report now being made public by Retraction Watch, Artemisia draws attention to four main groups centered on Ali Nazari, Mostafa Jalal, a postdoc at Texas A&M University, Ehsan Mohseni of the University of Newcastle in Australia, and Alireza Najigivi of Sharif University of Technology in Tehran. The whistleblower lists a total of 287 potentially compromised papers in the 42-page report.

Two hundred eighty seven papers with dodgy data, all churned out by these interlinked lab groups! That’s nuts. It’s practically a criminal enterprise. Part of the problem is at the university level, where the number of papers, without concern for their content, is the metric for promotion. But it’s also a problem with the proliferation of poorly managed journals, where the sole concern is volume and collecting those publication fees.

The guilty person at the journal level here is Guido Schmitz, at the University of Stuttgart, who is the editor of the International Journal of Materials Research, where this crap is published. He had an astonishing response when the bad papers in his journal were reported to him.

I can assure that I do not like fraud in scientific results and I will do my best to prevent them. But on the other hand, I hate anonymous accusations. So it would be my pleasure to follow up this matter after you have discovered your personality to me and send contact data under which I can reach you.

Wait wait wait. Because the person reporting the problem to him, “Artemisia”, is an anonymous whistleblower, he refuses to do anything? That makes no sense. If they had a Nobel prize attached to their name, would he jump up and take care of the problem immediately? Not knowing who they are is reason enough to ignore a credible complaint? This is not how it’s supposed to work. Any action taken would not be on the basis of the say-so of the person reporting it — his fucking job is to evaluate the evidence given and act appropriately.

He has been handed documentation that shows these papers contain falsified images, and he chooses to sit on his hands and not do anything because he doesn’t see a named authority behind the complaint. It’s rank credentialism. He’s also snooty and dismissive.

I will not take any action based on an anonymous accusation. As soon as you discover your clear name, contact address and your personal motivation in this issue, I will consider the appropriate and required means.

That doesn’t matter. If Bozo the Clown hands you evidence that figures were faked and data manipulated, you do due diligence and look at the work and verify the concerns, and then you take action, based on the evidence, not your perception of the authority of the complainant. If you don’t, why were you appointed to be editor of this journal?

Jonathan Pruitt hasn’t gone away yet?

Please, can we think of the spiders?

I think there are a heck of a lot of good scientists who deserve to be displayed in a big photo in the pages of Nature. Can he please be retired to a well-deserved obscurity now?

At least this article seems rather more focused on the foot-dragging by university administrators and the deep harm he has done to collaborators.

After more than two years of allegations over data irregularities in his publications, Jonathan Pruitt, a behavioural ecologist and rising star in the field of spider behaviour, resigned from McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, in July. The resignation marks a turning point in a painful saga — but Pruitt’s former lab members and collaborators told Nature that they want more closure, as they continue to deal with the fallout. Aside from the time wasted on studies that are now retracted, they have struggled with the stigma of being associated with alleged misconduct and have found it difficult to once again trust co-workers and collaborators.

The university concluded an investigation into the matter in late 2021 but has not released its outcome, and revealed last month that it had reached a confidential settlement with Pruitt.

For those who have spent years combing through data to comply with university investigators and talking with journal editors about retractions, this resolution is particularly unsatisfying, says Kate Laskowski, a behavioural ecologist at the University of California, Davis, who collaborated with Pruitt on several projects. Since allegations of data fabrication emerged in early 2020, at least 13 of Pruitt’s papers have been retracted, and 6 others have been labelled with expressions of concern.

Note the “confidential settlement” and the “more than two years of allegations” — this has been agonizingly drawn out over years without a clear resolution. McMaster University lawyers and administrators were clearly more interested in concealing malfeasance than in little things like “research integrity”. And then there are all these people like Laskowski left twisting in the wind…I would say that this is no blot on her career at all, but rather a huge red flag about McMaster’s management.

Unfortunately, Pruitt has landed on his feet and is now teaching at Tampa Catholic High School in Florida. I know, it’s Florida, so standards are pretty low there already, but I wouldn’t want a fraud teaching my kids. The way things are going, he’s more likely to be punished for being gay than for faking data.

Oh, and this is timely: you’ve heard of RateMyProfessor? Now there’s a version to RateYourCampusAdmin.

Are you tired of having little voice over the decisions on your campus?

Are you concerned about the spiraling costs of senior administration?

Do you think accountability is a two-way street?

We believe in the power of symmetry and transparency, of open evaluation, for and by faculty. At RateYourCampusAdmin.com, you will have the power to evaluate the performance of the senior administrators on your campus, through a thoroughly researched, robust means for aggregating expert opinions about the quality of the service they deliver to your community.

Turnabout is fair play. It’s little more than the promise of delivering a little accountability at this point, with only a few names in the database, but give them time, it could grow.

Goon University shot their wad

Would you believe that a two week course in a rented building led by a team of conservative wankers was the majestic peak of intellectual achievement this summer? Bari Weiss thinks so.

They’ve reached their peak so soon. It’s all downhill from here.

One way the right wing is winning

This one is going to have immense long term effects. The United States is experiencing a teacher shortage.

The teacher shortage in America has hit crisis levels — and school officials everywhere are scrambling to ensure that, as students return to classrooms, someone will be there to educate them.

“I have never seen it this bad,” Dan Domenech, executive director of the School Superintendents Association, said of the teacher shortage. “Right now it’s number one on the list of issues that are concerning school districts … necessity is the mother of invention, and hard-pressed districts are going to have to come up with some solutions.”

You might be wondering why. As a teacher myself (albeit one insulated from the worst by a position in higher ed), I looked at the Washington Post’s explanation to see if it aligned with my own experience.

Why are America’s schools so short-staffed? Experts point to a confluence of factors including pandemic-induced teacher exhaustion, low pay and some educators’ sense that politicians and parents — and sometimes their own school board members — have little respect for their profession amid an escalating educational culture war that has seen many districts and states pass policies and laws restricting what teachers can say about U.S. history, race, racism, gender and sexual orientation, as well as LGBTQ issues.

✔ “pandemic-induced teacher exhaustion”: Yes, definitely. We’ve been overworked for the past few years, trying to adjust to radical changes in instruction. It’s been ugly. The administration hasn’t been particularly helpful, either, happily passing down dictates and expecting us to implement them.

✔ “low pay”: My institution is one of the lowest paying in the University of Minnesota system, and it still rankles that shortly after the pandemic started, they convened a meeting to discuss how best and most equitably to reduce our pay further. Hey, everyone, you need to work harder, and by the way, we want to cut your salary, and have brought in a couple of economists to discuss it. Not the most sensitive move to make.

✔ “politicians and parents … have little respect for their profession”: You bet. That’s not just pandemic-induced, either — we’ve been watching Republicans whittle away at our budget for decades, and the latest accusations that we’re all post-modern neo-Marxists or trying to smuggle in CRT or encouraging sexual fluidity don’t help. That’s all true, of course, but what’s wrong with that?

✔ “laws restricting what teachers can say”: Not much of a problem for me (higher ed, again), and Minnesota has generally been good about that, but I can see it all coming down the road right now. Elect Ron DeSantis to the presidency, and I’m either going to be fired or lined up with my peers before a firing squad.

I have to add another, though: the cavalier attitude of our administrators to the pandemic. They don’t care. They don’t have to go into classrooms, they sit in their marble-lined offices and pretend the pandemic is over. Nothing has convinced me more that I’m regarded as nothing but a cog in the machine, expendable and easily replaced. Except that maybe I’m not going to be so easily replaced.

Since I am in higher ed, we’ll probably get 50-100 applications for my position the instant I retire.

I guess I’m going to have to find a new genetics textbook

I’ve been using Klug’s Concepts of Genetics for over 20 years, despite my annoyance at the cheap-ass behavior of the publisher. I’ve mentioned before that the primary differences between editions (which come out every year or two) is that they rearrange the order of the problems at the end, to justify making students buy the latest edition. It doesn’t work, because I scan or retype the problems that I hand out, so I can tell students that they can buy any used edition from the last decade, no problem.

I don’t think I can make workarounds for the publisher, Pearson, any more, though. They’re diving deep into the greed pit.

Textbook publisher Pearson plans to profit from secondhand sales by turning its titles into non-fungible tokens (NFTs), its chief executive has said.

Educational books are often sold more than once, since students sell study resources they no longer require. Publishers have not previously been able to make any money from secondhand sales, but the rise of digital textbooks has created an opportunity for companies to benefit.

NFTs confer ownership of a unique digital item by recording it on a decentralised digital register known as a blockchain. Typically these items are images or videos, but the technology allows for just about anything to be sold and owned in this way.

After the release of Pearson’s interim results, CEO Andy Bird explained his plan to sell digital textbooks as NFTs, allowing the publisher to track the ownership of a book even when it changes hands, Bloomberg reported. “In the analogue world, a Pearson textbook was resold up to seven times, and we would only participate in the first sale,” he said, explaining that “technology like blockchain and NFTs allows us to participate in every sale of that particular item as it goes through its life”.

Nope. Nope nope nope. Textbook publishers already gouge the students — the latest edition of Concepts of Genetics costs $197.00 — and that’s not enough for them, they want to get coin for every resell. That also hurts the students, because if nothing else, they can recover some of the expense buy reselling them (at an extreme markdown, by the way), and now Pearson wants to snatch some of that resell value away from them.

I think I can find some online texts that will do the job at no cost to the students. When the bookstore puts out its annual call for textbook purchases, I wonder what they’ll think if I tell them not to order any? That’s going to hurt their business a bit.

You know who else is hurt by Pearson’s greed? William Klug, Michael Cummings, Charlotte Spencer, Michael Palladino, and Darrell Killian, the scientists who are authors of the textbook. It’s already a low-paying job to write textbooks, and they’ve done a good job, but now the grasping selfishness of Pearson will cost them royalties.

Not representing computer science well

Dumbass wannabe martyr

This is the time of year many of us are working on our syllabi, and one common feature nowadays is a land acknowledgment. For instance, I mention that UMM is on the original homelands of the Dakota, Lakota and Anishinaabe peoples; no big deal, recognizing our history and the identity of the people who have a legitimate claim on these lands. But what would you think of this peculiar acknowledgement by a computer science instructor at the University of Washington?

I acknowledge that by the labor theory of property the Coast Salish people can claim historical ownership of almost none of the land currently occupied by the University of Washington.

Labor theory of property? What does that have to do the brute fact of the reality of UW’s history? Then denying that fact is simply offensive.

The university asked him to take it down. They even offer a recommended alternative.

The University of Washington acknowledges the Coast Salish peoples of this land, the land which touches the shared waters of all tribes and bands within the Suquamish, Tulalip and Muckleshoot nations.

It’s very silly to oppose a straightforward statement of fact like that, and offensive to post a denial. But Stuart Reges sees an opportunity to leap on the right-wing gravy train.

“University administrators turned me into a pariah on campus because I included a land acknowledgment that wasn’t sufficiently progressive for them,” said Reges in a press release issued Wednesday by FIRE, a nonprofit that supports free speech on campuses and elsewhere. “Land acknowledgments are performative acts of conformity that should be resisted, even if it lands you in court,” added Reges.

That’s it. The university asked an employee to refrain from offending students, which is entirely reasonable — academic freedom does not mean you can posture abusively and not be criticized. He has a job to do, and a meaningless but unproductive statement does interfere with that.

Of course, he is now suing the university, claiming his civil rights have been violated, which is why he’s partnering up with FIRE. Nothing has happened to him, except that his own actions have generated some adverse publicity; the university has not taken any material action against him. He’s not tenured, so the university is free to not renew his contract. I don’t understand what grounds he has for any kind of lawsuit. He’s just trying desperately to become yet another right-wing martyr, but the university hasn’t bothered to nail him up on any cross.

Of course, now he’s stuck his head up and made it obvious to the administration how stupid he is. He may have effectively screwed himself.

He’s tried this before. Would you believe he he published an article on Quillette, Why Women Don’t Code, in which he says I believe that women are less likely than men to want to major in computer science and less likely to pursue a career as a software engineer and that this difference between men and women accounts for most of the gender gap, and also tried to hoist himself on that cross again:

Saying controversial things that might get me fired is nothing new for me. I’ve been doing it most of my adult life and usually my comments have generated a big yawn. I experienced a notable exception in a 1991 case that received national attention, when I was fired from Stanford University for “violating campus drug policy” as a means of challenging the assumptions of the war on drugs. My attitude in all of these cases has been that I need to speak up and give my honest opinion on controversial issues. Most often nothing comes of it, but if I can be punished for expressing such ideas, then it is even more important to speak up and try to make the injustice plain.

Try and try and try again to provoke your employers so you can land that juicy lawsuit that will please the regressives who hate universities, and fail and fail and fail. That Quillette article did have the effect of getting his three-year contract getting demoted to a one year probationary contract. “Contract”. “Probationary”. That he has been straining to violate the terms of a probationary agreement for years seems to me to provide adequate grounds for letting him go while cancelling out any reason to sue his employers.

The only university that counts

It isn’t mine or yours, it’s only Harvard, as far as the New York Times is concerned. Read this thread to see what I mean.

It’s depressing. I’ve talked to so many people who consider Harvard the sine qua non of academia, when I’ve never been particularly impressed with the institution. Not that it’s bad, but this country, and other countries, have so many worthy universities that contribute far more to science and other disciplines…but the NYT, and other media, have created this myth of the superiority of one over-priced private whose primary, notable qualification is that rich people go there. See how skewed the headlines are:

Also telling:

In 2019 35% (7.7 million) of college students attended community colleges.

The New York Times mentioned “community college” 100k fewer times than it mentioned Yale University which enrolls approximately 12k students.

This is a vivid illustration of the problem:

(If you’re not up on the lingo, “HSI” is a Hispanic Serving Institution, “MSI” is Minority Serving Institution, and “HBCU” is a Historically Black College or University. I’m at a public and primarily regional college. Not that NYT readers would get exposed to any of that riff-raff. Really, unsubscribe from the New York Times, don’t bother reading it, it’s a bastion of all the inequity and elitism that is wrong with the US.)

(Also, seriously, they still pay David Fucking Brooks to write drivel?)

I hope you aren’t expecting the universities to fight back

Florida is leading the way in wrecking the American university system.

In his efforts to remake higher education in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed laws that alter the tenure system, remove Florida universities from commonly accepted accreditation practices, and mandate annual “viewpoint diversity surveys” from students and faculty.

DeSantis (R) also pushed through legislation he dubbed the “Stop WOKE Act” that regulates what schools, including universities, and workplaces can teach about race and identity. The legislation — which went into effect Friday — already faces a legal challenge.

Just wait until professors all across the country scramble to organize and leap into action! Just wait! Really. Keep waiting!

We have historical precedent on how universities will deal with the situation. Just look to Germany in the 1930s. How did the professoriate handle Hitler’s transition to power?

If you look at how that transition worked within specific institutions—universities, most notably—you see that in many cases that it took no coordination or controlling attention for it to happen. Sometimes it was that an ambitious existing faculty member within the institution who had already achieved some measure of respect or notability saw an opportunity to move into a leadership position, leveraging some kind of re-alignment towards Nazism. The classic example might be Martin Heidegger, who already had a strongly established international reputation and had taught an extraordinary series of students at Marburg and then at Freiburg, where he had been appointed as Husserl’s successor. In April 1933, Heidegger was appointed Rector at Freiburg; two weeks later he joined the Nazi Party. There’s still an ongoing argument about whether Heidegger’s philosophical thought led him to Nazism as a doctrine well before he became Rector or whether his personal ambition led him to calculatedly join the Party and then to calculatedly back its doctrinal preferences (at which point the debate ends, because he was and acted as a Nazi for a time).

In any event, it happened similarly elsewhere. In institutions and associations, someone stepped forward to make the outward look of the institution favorable to Nazi interests. That in turn required gradual and then sharply forceful remaking of the inward life of the institution for that someone to hold their place and stay on the safe side of power. In short order, faculty were forced to retire, to quietly recede and become as close to invisible as possible, or to at least outwardly pretend support for the new values and culture of the institution. Or to flee Germany altogether—and failing any of those, to eventually face persecution and death at the hands of the Nazi state. In other places, like Poland, the Nazis didn’t waste any time destroying an existing intelligentsia.

The example I usually use is Hans Spemann, probably the most famous embryologist of the era. He won the Nobel Prize in 1935 for an experiment his student, Hilde Mangold, did*, and rapidly rose up to a position of great influence in German academics. Don’t get me wrong, he had a long history of good developmental work, so it wasn’t entirely undeserved, but he also benefited from being not-Jewish. When the National Socialists came to power, he didn’t exactly rush to defend Jewish scientists — he instead sent lists of Jewish faculty to the party, and blocked their promotion. He was a ready collaborator! He gave the Nazi salute at his Nobel ceremony!

Curiously, his association with the Nazi party is not mentioned in his wikipedia entry or his embryo project entry. There was no price to pay for leading German universities into a disgraceful hell.

So watch this space! What will happen is that Florida will use those diversity surveys to promote Republicans into administrative positions, and they’ll use that power to obstruct and fire academics who don’t buy into the conservative worldview, and universities will meekly acquiesce. Professors aren’t rewarded for bucking the system. They’re rewarded for enabling whatever the administrators want.

*By the way, Spemann signed his name as an author on Mangold’s thesis, despite her opposition. That’s the thesis that won the Nobel. In our emerging new academic regime, expect the assholes to rise to the top, as always.