Why I banned Andy Lewis, Maria Maclachlan, and Alan Henness

Last week, I banned Andy Lewis, Maria Maclachlan, Alan Henness and a few of their friends. Oh, the weeping and wailing and rending of robes! The grief at this cosmic injustice! I have received so many messages of concern: Lewis/Maclachlan/Henness are so nice, so rational, such good skeptics and humanists, such upstanding members of the community, how could I possibly do this? And there lies the problem. Once someone joins a tribe, all the other members of the tribe are expected to assume that they’re good and nice and rational, and bugger all the evidence.

Andy Lewis is not nice and not rational. As evidence, I give you this: his response after being banned.

No one was banned for being in a relationship, which is simply stupid and absurd. I only noted that they were using the same IP address when I was trying to untangle the snarl of strange people brawling in the comments. Likewise, no one was banned for being the victim of a crime. This is all blatant dishonesty intended to stir up sympathy for these poor, innocent people who did nothing at all but love each other and get beat up by bad people. It’s hard to believe that anyone would fall for it, but they did — they were stumbling all over themselves in a rush to tell me what good skeptics they all are and gosh, aren’t they just the sweetest couple?

I’ll just point out that that tweet is such an obvious lie that it calls your judgment into question if you accept it.

Here’s what really happened. An anti-transgender activist (TERF) who has never commented here before found a post he didn’t like, and started trolling the group with aggressive and fundamentally dishonest comments to stir up conflict. His very first comment was disingenuous and misleading: Are we all so devoid of scepticism and full of misogyny that all here cannot bring themselves to accept the objective, material existence of women?

This was a thread about acceptance of transgender individuals, not about debating the existence of women. It is not misogyny to recognize the rights of transgender men and women. But Lewis just barreled in with misrepresentation as his opening gambit.

Note also: he kept this up, making 72 comments over less than a week, constantly stoking the flames and bloating the thread up to over 350 comments, many of which are addressing bogus issues he brought up. It’s a classic example of trolling. Andy Lewis is a troll, and also kind of an obsessed bigot about transgender people.

Furthermore, he recruited his friends to join in. It was a boiling wrangle with multiple TERFs raging when I finally stepped in and shut it down.

So, for instance, we quickly got mariamaclachlan jumping into the fray, and it’s an excellent representative of the fallacious arguments used throughout.

Oh for crying out loud, PZ! The word ‘woman’ means adult human female. Women do NOT have penises.

No, women don’t stop being women if they lose their ovaries any more than you stop being a man because your dick gets lopped off. Your sex is defined according to which of the two reproductive classes you were born into – you KNOW this really but you’ve drunk the ideological kool-aid and are in denial.

Thankfully, there are still some like Angelos who haven’t.

ALL SWANS ARE WHITE! If you find a black swan, we’ll just use our definition to exclude them from the category of swans. It’s an argument as old as Aristotle, and you would think that a skeptic would be familiar with the dangers of an argument from false premises. You don’t just get to blithely wave away counter-examples by referring to a cherry-picked definition.

I also don’t accept the automatic equating of “female” with “woman”, of confusing sex with gender. It also baffles me that anyone would do that: are they in the habit of checking the genitalia of every person they meet? There are almost 7½ billion people on the planet; I’ve met thousands of women; I work regularly with hundreds of them. I have never once asked any of them to show me that they don’t have a penis before accepting their gender. In fact, I’ve only seen the genitals of a handful of human females in my life; should I be skeptical of the identity of every other woman on Earth? How awkward.

I also don’t ask for a karyotype, or a demonstration of what kind of gametes they make.

The fact is that “woman” is a rich cultural artifact with many cues used to designate that aspect of their identity — I accept the reality of girls’ names, women’s styles, women’s manner of speaking, women’s traditional roles, women’s typical careers, women’s make-up — all the signals that people use to mark their gender. I don’t freak out when a girl is named “Mike”, when a woman is a fighter pilot, when a man uses eye shadow, when anyone uses vocal fry, when a woman interrupts a man. We’re seeing people break out of the stereotypes we impose on men and women in many ways, and I think that’s a great step forward. Let’s treat people as individuals rather than representatives of only two allowed gender classes.

The presence or absence of a penis is possibly the worst gender signal ever, because we keep those hidden in almost all of our social interactions. I’d have to be really close, very intimate friends with a woman before she’d show me her penis.

And then, in that comment, one of the most annoying, bullshit argument tactics ever: the declaration that she KNOWS exactly what I know. I’ve heard this from creationists, too, the claim that since I’m a biologist, I must know that all the evidence for evolution is false, and I must deep down agree with them except that I’ve drunk the ideological kool-aid, or possibly, am in the thrall of all the money from Big Science.

You are incorrect, Ms MacLachlan. I am a developmental biologist, which means I know that sex is not a unary operation. It is not decided by a single gene or chromosome, or a single hormone, or a single organ, and is a layered complex process of interlinked interactions. The path from SRY to brain development is not linear and fixed, and other genes and environmental factors can shift the pathway both subtly and profoundly. Sex is not one decision that splits the population into precisely two types. It is a multitude of decisions that modify a multitude of traits and produces a range of complex outcomes. That this process is strongly canalized developmentally to produce a majority of two reproductive types does not mean that variation is excluded, or that we should simply ignore or discriminate against anyone who differs. Biology doesn’t say what you claim it says, and it’s extremely obnoxious to claim the authority of science for your bigotry.

I’m not even getting into gender. That’s the domain of psychologists and sociologists, and to even pretend that human beings emerge from the complexity of biological sex determination to then find a binary simplicity and clarity in psychology and culture is ludicrous. The only reality behind that is that there exist some gatekeepers who are deeply committed to the idea of there being only two allowed types of people, and who try desperately to enforce their narrow preconceptions by harassing people at transgender events or by trolling blogs. Or, I suppose, in some societies or in history, setting the deviants on fire.

So please, don’t tell me what I “KNOW”, and imply that I secretly agree with your anti-scientific bullshit. I don’t. It’s a great way to antagonize me and get yourself banned, unlike, for example, being married.

The whole is like that: the TERFs interject their standard bad arguments, equating sex and gender, insisting that transgender individuals believe they have gametes corresponding to their professed gender, suggesting that transgender women are trying to violently oppress “True” Women, bringing up anecdotes of criminals who dressed as women, etc., etc., etc. The regular commenters here were ably responding to it all, so I just stayed out of it, and they also seemed to take my absence as cowardice on my part and permission for them to amplify their lies. That led to me finally shutting them down.

Let me be crystal clear on this. TERFs tend to be assholes, and I’m not particularly impressed when you try to tell me that this particular set of TERFs are “nice” or “rational”. Biology does not support your gender essentialism, so quit pretending it does. Your species is specified by your genetics (and sometimes even that is fuzzy), but it is not the entirety of your identity, and the people who claim that who you are is a product of a chromosome or a single organ are simplistic to the point of simplemindedness, and given that these same people are often quite intelligent, I have to assume that they are motivated by prejudice or malevolence, and I don’t want them hanging around here.

I’m also not impressed by your membership in a particular tribe, whether it’s skepticism, atheism, humanism, or Catholicism.

After Kavanaugh’s Destruction…

That’s news to me, but it’s actually good news, I’m just missing the details. Did he explode, was he loaded into a missile and fired into the sun, was he fed to crocodiles? Inquiring minds want to know.

That was the title of a whine by Rod Dreher, wonders After Kavanaugh’s Destruction, Who Is Safe? Really, that’s his title.

Someone should break the harsh news to his persecution complex that Kavanaugh wasn’t destroyed, but was instead appointed to the Supreme Court, the pinnacle of achievement for an American lawyer who likes his brewskis. The President of the US made it a great big partisan event! A Facebook executive threw a big party for him (Facebook loves the Trumpster, and the Russians who make all those ad buys for him). The Nazis are celebrating on the internet!

I don’t know how he missed it all. Maybe it’s because his source on this article is David Brooks, whose head is so far up his own ass that he vocalizes by vibrating his hemorrhoids while farting.

But if there’s anyone dumber than David Brooks, it’s Rod Dreher. He proceeds to out-Brooks Brooks with a story.

I can’t tell this story often enough: In my rural Southern town, back in the 1940s, a black man and a white woman were discovered in sexual congress. The woman accused him of rape. The sheriff and two deputies hunted the black man down through the woods, captured him, dragged him back to the jailhouse, and lynched him. Days later, the white accuser broke down under the weight of her conscience. She confessed that the black man had been her lover. She had accused him of rape to save her own reputation in that white supremacist culture.

There was never any chance that that black man would have had the opportunity to defend himself in court. There was never any chance that he would be considered innocent until proven guilty. Everybody (that is, all whites, who held all the power) knew that black men seethed with lust for white women. Everybody knew that no white woman could possibly find black men sexually desirable. In a case like this one, there’s no need for a fair trial; you believe the woman. If you don’t believe the woman, and exact swift and sure punishment for her assailant, then it will be open season for black men to rape white women. That was what the power-holders in that time and place believed.

So let me get this straight. In this metaphor for the current situation, a wealthy white prep school boy and Yalie is…the Southern black man in the 1940s? And Christine Blasey Ford is the wicked woman who lied to protect her honor…by stepping forward and revealing an otherwise unknown act, paying for it with loss of security, the need to leave her home, and receiving a deluge of death threats? And “lynching” is being used as a synonym for “being appointed to the Supreme Court”?

Does Dreher think Ford and Kavanaugh were secret lovers? I would not be surprised. Conservatives have been flinging all kinds of ludicrous justifications around.

Everything about this story is totally inappropriate and misplaced. This is a guy weaponizing racism to make bogus excuses for a wealthy, privileged white man.

His conclusion is also bizarre.

Brett Kavanaugh, from what I can tell, is a by-the-book pinstriped Washington Republican. If the liberal mob can turn him into History’s Greatest Monster on the basis of unsupported allegations from his teenage years, and on the basis of his race and gender, then who is safe?

Errm, “by-the-book pinstriped Washington Republican” has become synonymous with “History’s Greatest Monster”. That’s not the work of a liberal mob, but the actions of Republicans — you can’t support Republican policies like denial of science, gutting of education, an overt attack on women’s autonomy, widespread corruption and incompetence, and then be surprised when people wear garlic necklaces and throw holy water as you pass by.

And who is safe? Men who didn’t assault women. It’s like suddenly every Republican is tugging at their collar and beading up with sweat, as if they have a guilty conscience or something. It makes one wonder.


Lawrence Krauss is in big trouble at ASU.

A college dean has recommended prominent theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, who was accused of sexual harassment, be fired from Arizona State University.

Whoa. That’s a major threat to his academic career. It’s too bad he is totally helpless before the accusations of women, and has no defense against this witch hunt.

Oh, wait…

According to policies set by the Arizona Board of Regents, Krauss is entitled to several layers of review before he can be fired.

First, the dean of a professor’s school can recommend a faculty member be dismissed, which is what Kenney did. Then, the faculty member can challenge the recommendation in what is called a conciliation or mediation, and a conciliation committee comprised of faculty members is set up.

Krauss is in the conciliation process right now, a university spokesman said. Kenney, Krauss and the president of the University Senate all appointed one member to serve on the committee.

The conciliation committee’s goal is to find a “mutually agreed upon solution,” according to Board of Regents’ policy.

If the conciliation process fails, Crow can issue a written notice of dismissal. Krauss could then appeal this notice to the Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure and receive a hearing.

The committee makes a recommendation to Crow, who then makes a decision on dismissal. Krauss has another opportunity to ask for reconsideration before a final decision from Crow.

The entire process can take many months.

Not to mention he is on a fully paid leave. I’m also on leave from my university, but if you take a sabbatical for career development, they reward you with half pay. If only I’d been fondling women, I could be getting full pay! The mistakes we make…

Also not mentioned is that, as a popular physics superstar, he’s got his book revenues to fall back on.

I’m also going to give him 6 months if he loses tenure (not a sure thing at all) to be back on the comeback trail, getting more speaking gigs, another book deal, maybe a position at another university, because after all, hasn’t he suffered enough?

(I’ve just learned that this much sarcasm hurts my heart. Need to stop doing that.)

Planned Parenthood is here for good

While we were driving to Minneapolis, we had to pass through Jebus Alley, the corridor that runs through the middle of the state, and which is festooned with billboards from obnoxious evangelical churches and Pro-Life Across America. I usually just snarl and move on. But this time — I saw an amazing sight. I saw…this:

It’s about time. IN YOUR FACE, YAHOOS.

Locker room talk

The latest from Jane Mayer and Ronan Farrow brought back ugly memories. Kavanaugh made some coded references to a girl in his yearbook, and now claims they were innocent.

Kavanaugh and thirteen other Georgetown Prep boys described themselves in their high-school yearbook as “Renate Alumnius,” which other classmates have told the Times was a crude sexual boast. During his Senate hearing, Kavanaugh said that the reference was an endearment, saying, “she was a great friend of ours. We—a bunch of us went to dances with her. She hung out with us as a group.” He said that a “media circus that has been generated by this, though, and reported that it referred to sex. It did not.”

I don’t believe him. The other crap in his yearbook were sniggering references to drinking to excess and sex, and in the midst of all that, he’s making an affectionate, sentimental reference to a good friend? He’s lying.

This, on the other hand, is more believable.

but the classmate who submitted the statement said that he heard Kavanaugh “talk about Renate many times,” and that “the impression I formed at the time from listening to these conversations where Brett Kavanaugh was present was that Renate was the girl that everyone passed around for sex.” The classmate said that “Brett Kavanaugh had made up a rhyme using the REE NATE pronunciation of Renate’s name” and sang it in the hallways on the way to class. He recalled the rhyme going, “REE NATE, REE NATE, if you want a date, can’t get one until late, and you wanna get laid, you can make it with REE NATE.” He said that, while he might not be remembering the rhyme word-for-word, “the substance is 100 percent accurate.” He added, “I thought that this was sickening at the time I heard it, and it left an indelible mark in my memory.”

And then I remembered my unpleasant years of having to go through a boys’ locker room in high school. I didn’t like it — I’d take my quick shower, get dressed, and get out as fast as possible — but there were the jocks who reveled in it, strutting around naked, snapping towels at each other (or the nerds, more incentive for me to get out), and bragging about their hot dates. Worst of all was that Coach Earl would also come out and egg them on, asking about specific girls, and what they would do together, and the jocks would eagerly tell stories.

I remember in particular that there were a couple of names always getting thrown around with salacious details — names I knew of people who were quite nice and good in school and friendly and decent to others, but they had committed the crime of being attractive and dating a football player, who would then turn them into objects of lust in the locker room, and spread intimate details, whether true or not, that I’m sure they wouldn’t have wanted told to a gang of giggling apes. I doubt they did any of the things that were talked about — it was more that if you didn’t brag about your conquests, Coach would make sneering remarks about the size of your testicles, and you wouldn’t get high fives from your team mates.

Jeez, but I hated that place. It contributed greatly to my low opinion of douchebros.

But I didn’t tell anyone about their behavior, and in particular I didn’t tell any of the named girls what their so-called friends were saying about them behind their backs, because I knew how they’d respond. They’d feel like Renate.

Reached for comment, Dolphin noted that she had asked for her name to be removed from a statement signed by female supporters of Kavanaugh’s nomination. “If this report is true, I am profoundly hurt,” she said, of the account in the affidavit. “I did nothing to deserve this. There is nothing affectionate or respectful in bragging about making sexual conquests that never happened. I am not a political person, but my reputation matters to me and to my family. I would not have signed the letter if I had known about the yearbook references and this affidavit. It is heartbreaking if these guys who acted like my friends in high school were saying these nasty, false things about me behind my back.”

If I’d given any advice to my daughter on this matter, it would have been to never date a jock. But I didn’t, because I trusted her to make wise choices…but still, I always worried that someone was going to break her heart, because of those boys.

There are reasons I don’t allow students to cite Wikipedia articles

This is one of them.

Strickland is an associate professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Waterloo and former president of the Optical Society, but when a Wikipedia user attempted to create a profile for her in March, the page was denied by a moderator.

“This submission’s references do not show that the subject qualifies for a Wikipedia article,” said the moderator.

Donna Strickland won the Nobel in Physics this year, the first woman to win in that category since 1963. Physics really does have a bias problem. I guess they’re in competition with Wikipedia!

The episode also cast light on Wikipedia’s own gender bias: just 16% of the site’s volunteer editors are female and only 17% of entries dedicated to notable people are for women.

How to force-fit preconceptions about gender into science

I mentioned this persistent idea that male variability explains their “superior” intellectual abilities in my last post. There’s another example of the prevalence of this odd, unsupported idea going around — a twice-retracted paper that purports to find a mathematical basis for a sex difference.

The variability hypothesis generally states that the males of a species vary more widely in physical and physiological traits than the females. This theory is controversial because, since the beginning of the 20th century, it has mostly been used to refer to cognitive abilities—the purported greater frequency of both lower and higher extremes in intelligence among human males compared with females.

As Penn State University professor of psychology and women’s studies Stephanie Shields covered in her 1982 historical review (and in a follow-up 2016 review), scientists in the early 1900s asserted that there was a difference in the variability of mental traits between the sexes and attributed this difference to genetics, not considering environment and societal factors.

Again, I don’t find the idea credible at all. It’s entirely based on wishful thinking and a strange idea that nature is fair, and tries to support it with an unsupported belief that all biases must be symmetrically distributed. This paper was rejected for more specific, detailed problems, though.

The major flaw in the paper, according to Mark Kirkpatrick, a mathematical geneticist at the University of Texas at Austin who has published models of the evolution of mating preferences and selected traits, is that the rules of inheritance are not taken into account. “The paper’s conclusions are simply wrong,” he says. “The genes of the successful individuals in a population are transmitted to the offspring and [Hill’s] model does not have any equation that links up the genes of one generation with the genes of the next generation.”

Reed Cartwright, a computational evolutionary geneticist at Arizona State University, agrees. “My primary issue with Hill’s model is that it lacks any notion of genetics, and you cannot ignore genetics and make evolutionary conclusions,” Cartwright writes in an email to The Scientist. The model also ignores the role of gene-environment interactions, which are particularly important for complex traits, according to Cartwright. “Hill did not appreciate that if the difference between his two populations of males was due to environment and not genes, then his conclusions would be invalid.”

Yeah, if you invent an evolutionary model that handwaves away that awkward necessity of a mechanism of inheritance, you’re going to find that biologists are unimpressed. It reminds me of the time I attended a lecture by a mathematician/computer scientist on epidemiology, and she had tested her hypothesis with a simulation of viruses that she started by explaining that her model was the first one that used male and female viruses. Nope nope nope nope.

How awful can Alessandro Strumia be?

He’s one of those physicists — the ones who despise the humanities and are quite confident that white men are the crown of creation because he is one. He gave a talk at CERN that was basically about how his analysis of citation indices proves that women are inferior at physics, but they get hired over men anyway.

The talk was so appalling that CERN stripped it from their website and chastised Strumia for it without naming him.

CERN considers the presentation delivered by an invited scientist during a workshop on High Energy Theory and Gender as highly offensive. It has therefore decided to remove the slides from the online repository, in line with a Code of Conduct that does not tolerate personal attacks and insults.

The organisers from CERN and several collaborating Universities were not aware of the content of the talk prior to the workshop. CERN supports the many members of the community that have expressed their indignation for the unacceptable statements contained in the presentation.

CERN is a culturally diverse organisation bringing together people from dozens of nationalities. It is a place where everyone is welcome, and all have the same opportunities, regardless of ethnicity, beliefs, gender or sexual orientation.

Lucky (?) for us, someone grabbed a copy of the slides and uploaded them for all of us to see. CERN may have made a mistake by deleting the original copy, because they’re demonstrably bad.

An example:

The first thing that jumped out at me when browsing the slides was just how incoherent and badly laid out they are, full of bad grammar and numbers for the sake of numbers. We did three job searches last year, for positions which require clarity and teaching ability as well as great scientific content, and we wouldn’t have hired anyone whose idea of a presentation was to vomit up that kind of incomprehensible stream-of-consciousness, and apparently the slides are less incoherent than the talk.

As for the content…he claims to be using citation analysis to distinguish between two theories explaining asymmetries in the hiring of men and women in physics. The “M” or “Mainstream” theory is that it’s broken by discriminatory hiring practices; “C” or “Conservative” theory is that it’s not unfair, that it’s a meritocracy and men bubble to the top because they’re simply inherently superior. To demonstrate that “C” is correct, he really overworks the citation numbers to claim that not only is the number of citations an accurate measure of academic talent, but is also correlated with IQ, and that women are just lacking in both. You see, Physics invented and built by men, apparently on the plains of Africa thousands of years ago, and if you disagree, you’re one of those “cultural Marxists”.

Anyone who blathers about “cultural Marxism” is a fool not qualified for any kind of intellectual position.

Of course, he reveals his real motivations, and they are hilarious. He applied for a job, and he was not hired — but a woman was. And this was despite the fact that he had a much, much bigger Ncit than she did!

You know, job searches would be much easier if we just had a simple numerical metric to assess the candidates. To apply, just send us a piece of paper with your name and your IQ score, and we’ll sort them and hire whoever comes out on top. But no, we insist on meeting the person face-to-face, and looking at all the complexity of their career, and getting recommendations, and looking at how they interact with colleagues and students, because professional positions involve a heck of a lot more than extracting your brain, putting it in a jar, and marveling at how quickly it can do calculations.

Judging from this talk, Alessandro Strumia probably gave an interview that demonstrated that he was a raging asshole, so he wasn’t hired for good reason.

One of the canards he trotted out was the old argument that men exhibit greater variation than women, so we ought to expect that, just as men exhibit a greater frequency of mental deficiencies, they ought also to exhibit a greater frequency of mentally superior individuals.

Why we should believe this, I don’t know. Because we’re supposed to assume biology is fair, and is going to compensate one sex with more talents, just to balance out the problems? I see no reason to think that the genetic biases are going to be symmetric. People who are hit on the head with hammers will experience a greater frequency of crippling health problems afterwards; we don’t predict that, to be fair, nature will give an equal number of victims super-powers. For some reason, though, this idea is common, especially among worshippers of the bell curve.

Just to complicate matters, I’ll propose that personality is multi-dimensional (I doubt anyone will argue), and that if IQ is one dimension, another is the AQ — the asshole quotient. If the distribution of the AQ is also bell-shaped, and men exhibit greater variation, then more men will have a high AQ and are therefore not fit for the company of human beings, and hiring discrimination against men is justified.

We’ve all known that guy

The latest accuser speaking up about Kavanaugh has a horrific tale to tell, but the most horrific thing about it is that it seems entirely plausible.

Swetnick, in the affidavit posted on Twitter by Avenatti, claims that she saw Kavanaugh, as a high school student in Maryland in the early 1980s, and others spike the drinks of girls at house parties with grain alcohol and/or drugs to “cause girls to lose inhibitions and their ability to say ‘No.’ ”

Swetnick said these efforts by Kavanaugh and his buddy Mark Judge were done so the girls “could then be ‘gang raped’ in a side room or bedroom by a ‘train’ of numerous boys.”

“I have a firm recollection of seeing boys lined up outside rooms at many of these parties waiting for their ‘turn’ with a girl inside the room. These boys included Mark Judge and Brett Kavanaugh,” Swetnick said.

She also said in her affidavit sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee that in approximately 1982 “I became the victim of one of these ‘gang’ or ‘train’ rapes where Mark Judge and Brett Kavanaugh were present.”

I’ve mentioned that I was ‘rushed’ by a fraternity once upon a time. It was a whole house packed full of these guys, so I can believe it.