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Scientific American Must Begin the Sacking
Institutions Cannot Function if they Cannot Self-Correct
A few weeks ago, Scientific American proved itself to be both anti-science and anti-American. My words can’t describe the extent of its depravity, but maybe geneticist Razib Khan can:
This was why Scientific American’s publication of The Complicated Legacy of E. O. Wilson frankly left me aghast. Even my deep cynicism about our age’s slackening standards did not prepare me for that op-ed. It seemed to have little to do with Wilson, and everything to do with opportunistically shoehorning particular views about social justice into the practice of hard science.
His letter, signed by legends including Dr. David C. Queller, Dr. Jerry Coyne, Dr. Nicholas A. Christakis, Dr. Joseph Henrich, and many, many more. You can read the full list at the bottom of his letter. A seemingly bottomless well of experts in his field rose to Wilson’s defense on twitter. I strongly encourage everyone to read his full rebuttal, but here is the most telling part:
Here, the author proceeds only to demonstrate a baffling ignorance of one of the most basic concepts in modern statistics. Calling on her expertise in public health, she claims “the so-called normal distribution of statistics assumes that there are default humans who serve as the standard that the rest of us can be accurately measured against.” But this is nonsense. Far from a conspiracy of biased humans, the “normal distribution” is a widely observed feature of the natural world. Across the animal and plant kingdoms, traits like human birth weight and height, cucumber length, bovine milk production, indeed any trait with many random, independent variables at play, can often be found to approximately follow a normal distribution. “Normal” simply refers to a probability distribution with a certain mathematical form, the value-neutral outcome of random variables that have hewed to certain patterns.
You read that correctly. Scientific American published an author who is wholly ignorant of what a normal distribution is. This is something that is understood by the most basic of undergraduate students and a fair portion of high schoolers. I recently swore off using the word ‘disinformation’ because of its increasingly partisan connotation, but there is truly no better word for the litany of baseless claims, non-sequiturs, and ad hominems which Scientific American has allowed into its pages.
Scientific American must fire editor-in-chief Laura Helmuth who obstructed any rebuttal in the publication and likely approved the original hit-job. If another editor approved it, he or she must also be fired.
Before the free-speech absolutists cry “cancel culture”, we must remember the context this is in. Here are a few examples of people being fired that are not cancel culture:
A plumber creates leaks throughout a client’s house and is fired
A salesman trashes his own company on the job and is fired
A cybersecurity expert posts private information and is fired
In order words, when an employee’s words or actions are in direct contradiction to their institution’s stated purpose, there is no free speech issue whatsoever. Scientific American is not a random blog on the internet. Within it’s instructions, it writes (credit to Jerry Coyne for the highlight):
We look for fact-based arguments. Therefore, if you are making scientific claims—aside from those that are essentially universally accepted (e.g., evolution by natural selection explains the diversity of life on Earth; vaccines do not cause autism; the Earth is about 93 million miles from the Sun) we ask you to link to original scientific research in reputable journals or assertions from reputable science-oriented institutions.
Regardless of one’s politics, publishing baseless character assassination is not unethical behavior, but is in direct contradiction with the purpose and standards of Scientific American. If no one is fired for the most clear and explicit of violations, they have essentially promoted an environment in which none of its employees are held accountable whatsoever, even for basic standards of accuracy.
A common topic of my writing is the influence of selection mechanisms on the function of institutions. An institution which places ideology over basic factual standards will almost certainly deliver the opposite of what it promises. The most famous version of this phenomenon is Lysenkoism:
Lysenko is the standard bearer for confirmation bias driven pseudoscience. His false claims weren’t at all random, they were what Hanania calls “directional lying”. Lysenko was a devout communist and each of his lies formed part of a coherent argument for communist assumptions. He denied that genes exist, calling them a “barrier to progress”. His third claim above rests on the marxist idea of “class solidarity”. He dismissed the evidence presented by Western scientists, calling them “tools of imperialist oppressors”. With the benefit of hindsight, we know how Lysenkoism ended: his “research” being implemented in the Soviet Union and China was responsible for over 30 million men, women, and children starving to death.
Without the ability to correct errors and select individuals that will not make that error again, there is no scientific progress. As I have frequently written, this will be a self-enforcing cycle no matter the outcome. Either Scientific American will accept corruption, selecting for further corruption and ideological conformity with disregard for the truth, or it will enforce its own standards, removing incompetence and hiring for rigor until it once again lives up to its standards. It is clear that Scientific American will not commit to the latter path without outside pressure. This feedback loop is why institutional pressure to enforce objective standards is crucial to perpetuating functioning institutions.