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Tuesday, May 16, 2017

WHAT IS HERITABILITY, REALLY?

The calculated "heritability" for having two hands is essentially zero.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Leon Brocard
In the May issue of Scientific American, I critique the latest efforts to find genetic variants that provide elevated risk for schizophrenia, the most debilitating of all mental illnesses. The story is behind a paywall, although I hope that readers will be able to get access to it either through personal or institutional subscriptions. I did, however, provide a synopsis of the main points in an interview with John Batchelor, which is available on his podcast feed.

The article included a sidebar about the heritability of schizophrenia, and some common misunderstandings about what heritability actually is. Lack of space made it impossible to go into much detail, but below I provide an expanded version of the text which includes some additional details. I hope readers will find it useful.

                                                                          * * *

Researchers have been searching for schizophrenia related genes for at least 50 years. What makes them think they will find them?  The rationale is spelled out in the introduction to nearly every scientific paper on schizophrenia genetics: The disorder has a high “heritability.” This term is often interpreted—by many researchers and the general public alike—as a measure of the relative role played by genes. Heritability is usually expressed as a percentage between zero and 100%.

Scientists have estimated the heritability of schizophrenia using several approaches, including studies of twins, both identical and fraternal. One oft cited study dates to 2003, when a research team  reported  a “meta-analysis” of 12 previous twin studies.  (In a meta-analysis, the data from earlier studies are pooled to increase statistical power.) The team concluded that schizophrenia had a heritability of 81%.

However, many researchers argue that heritability estimates for schizophrenia and other so-called complex human traits (ranging from disease susceptibility to how tall a person is) can be very misleading. One major debate  is over key assumptions used to simplify the method. One assumption is that genes and the environment do not interact but have only an additive effect; another is that genes  act independently rather than in concert. Still another, called the equal environment assumption (EEA), considers both identical and fraternal twins to be subject to the same environmental influences. Thus if identical twins are more similar than fraternals for a particular trait, that greater similarity must be entirely due to genes. But critics argue that the EEA is violated in a number of ways, including the greater likelihood that identical twins will be treated the same by their parents while they are growing up.

“These basic assumptions are wrong,” says Roar Fosse, a neuroscientist at the Vestre Viken Hospital Trust in Norway, who led a critical assessment of the EEA published in 2015. But twin researchers have mounted a vigorous defense of the approach, countering that even if the EEA and other assumptions are oversimplifications, the methodology is basically sound. “I don’t think it’s likely that current heritability numbers are substantially overestimated,” says Kenneth Kendler, a psychiatrist at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Medicine.

But some researchers have an even more profound critique of heritability. They argue that it is not truly an indication of the relative role of genes and environment. The actual definition of the term, they point out, is much more technical:  Heritability measures how much the variation of a trait in a particular population—whether height, IQ, or being diagnosed with schizophrenia--is due to genetic variation among the individuals in that population. “Heritability and genetic cause are not the same,” says Mary-Claire King, a geneticist at the University of Seattle. Peter Visscher, a geneticist at the University of Queensland in Australia, agrees. “It is a misconception that a high heritability implies genetic determination. Human height has a heritability of 80%, and yet environmental factors such as childhood nutrition and healthcare can have a big effect on adult height.”

As an example of how misleading heritability estimates can be, Eric Turkheimer, a behavioral geneticist at the University of Virginia, points to the human trait of having two arms. Nearly everyone in a given population has two of them, and there is normally no difference in the number of arms between identical twins—who share 100% of their genes—and fraternal twins, who are assumed to share 50% of their genes. Thus when heritability for arm number is calculated, it comes out to zero. And yet we know that having two arms is almost entirely genetically determined.


Figuring out what heritability for schizophrenia actually means is key, researchers say, because even the most high-powered genetic studies have only identified about a third of the predicted genetic component. A similar predicament faces researchers working on other complex diseases, including diabetes and Crohn’s disease, where an even higher percentage of the heritability remains unaccounted for. Will this so-called “missing heritability” eventually show up in more sophisticated studies—or will it turn out that genes are not playing as big a role as heritability estimates have long predicted? The jury is still out.

Friday, May 12, 2017

RussiaGate is exciting, but don't let it distract from organizing


The revelations of the past week are dramatic and exciting for those who really want to get at the truth about what happened during the 2016 election. Nevertheless, they could have a down side.

My main concern is that some anti-Trump people might be staking too much on evidence turning up of direct collusion between his campaign people (Manafort et al) and the Russians to influence the election. It's one thing for them to have been in touch with the Russians, and it's another thing for the Russians to have "hacked" the election, but the Russians might have been too smart (they are much smarter than Trump and his boys) to leave any traces that this was coordinated. In fact it didn't need to be, the Russians just could have been working all the angles. 

I'm not saying this is the way it was, but if it turns out that way then the investigations are going to fizzle and the Trumpists will be able to claim there was never anything serious there. It's all fine to be focused on it as long as it does not distract from the need to build a mass movement that will have impact on the streets, and in the voting booth late next year (that's still a long way off.)

Unfortunately, too many Democrats hate doing anything that might involve actually changing anybody's mind about political questions. Instead most establishment Demos prefer to slosh donor money around, build machines, and focus on voter turnout, rather than influence political views. The "return" of Hillary Clinton to political life is a bad sign that way--she represents the very worst of Democratic Party machine politics.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Syria, Trump, Clinton, political footballs, and morality

Out of frustration with current discussions about Syria and Trump's bombing of the air field the other day, I posted this comment on the Facebook page of a good friend and colleague. I am reposting it here, for what it is worth. If it ends without clear suggestions about what to do, at least I am no worse off than anyone else talking about the war in Syria right now.


The problem I am having in the current discussion is that Syria has become a political football for all sides and persuasions. This is happening on a number of different levels. Liberals are quick to jump on Trump's use of force, but Hillary Clinton has long argued for military intervention in Syria and argued for taking out Assad's airfields and air force just hours before Trump's minimalist attack on the one air base. But I actually saw a woman Tweet that we needed a woman president who would not be so aggressive! Then there is the inconvenient fact that according to UN estimates about 400,000 Syrians have died in the war and millions are refugees. The latter consequence actually gets more attention these days than the former, but both are awful; and yet absolutely no one, anywhere, has done anything about it nor even advocated doing anything about it in most cases. Clearly negotiations have failed and they will continue to fail. After Trump's action the other day a lot of people started talking about violations of international law, not getting permission from Congress, etc etc, but actually the most serious violations of international law are those committed by Assad every time he bombs civilians--the use of chemical weapons is a very very small part of the problem. Where does all this leave us? In my own view, ONLY those who argue about Syria from a STRICTLY moral point of view have any credibility on the issue. Any other perspective is playing politics, no matter what political viewpoint is being played.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Smithsonian mammalogist Kris Helgen, falsely accused but now exonerated of research misconduct, leaves for Australia

Helgen leading his expedition on Mt. Kenya
Note: This post will be continually edited as new information and comment become available. Latest development is a story in the Washington Post about the resolution of the case, which kindly credits my original reporting in The Verge.

Kris Helgen, whose long battle to clear his name of accusations made by his superiors at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History has finally succeeded, is leaving the museum for a new position at the University of Adelaide. Although he managed to hold onto his job after an investigation I conducted for The Verge showed that the charges and their investigation were deeply flawed, sources at the museum indicate that NMNH officials continued to make his life miserable over the past months. They stripped him of his curatorial responsibilities, isolated him from colleagues, and left him with little hope of regaining the prestige and respect he had previously enjoyed.

In an email yesterday to museum staff (see below), Helgen stated that he would start at Adelaide in March, with the rank of professor of biological sciences, a clear promotion from his current position. Helgen also stated that his "record had been cleared and efforts to fire or suspend me have been rescinded." This includes the two week suspension that NMNH director Kirk Johnson had slapped on him last fall--a serious blemish on the record of a federal employee, had it been allowed to stand.

Museum officials declined to comment on the circumstances of Helgen's departure, simply stating that the NMNH does not comment on personnel matters. However, one museum scientist familiar with the situation told me that it was the result of a settlement between museum officials and Helgen negotiated over the past period of time: "It's infuriating to me that institutional leaders would let [Johnson] unilaterally destroy [Helgen's] professional reputation and create a hostile workplace."

Don Wilson, an emeritus mammalogist at the museum and Helgen's predecessor as curator of mammals, told me that "The Smithsonian has lost one of its best and brightest. Kris will be making major contributions to science for decades to come." One of those contributions comes this week, as Helgen joins an international team to announce a new species of gibbon in the American Journal of Primatology.

Helgen will move to Adelaide with his wife, who is Australian, and their young son. Below is his message to his colleagues at the museum; I will update this report as more details come in.

From: Helgen, Kristofer M.
Sent: Monday, January 09, 2017 4:03 PM
To: NMNH-All-Users
Cc: ....
Subject: farewell
Friends
It is with excitement and sadness that I announce that I am leaving NMNH for a position in Australia. I will be taking on the role of Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Adelaide, starting in March. My last day will be January 19. The University of Adelaide is my alma mater and my work in zoology will continue there, apace. Lauren (my wife), who has worked in Entomology and Vertebrate Zoology here at NMNH, also bids you farewell. Lauren is from Adelaide, and we will return to be with family there. We will be going home.
2016 has been challenging. Many of you learned in the press that NMNH tried to fire me over complaints related to permissions for our 2015 Roosevelt Expedition to Kenya. I am very relieved to say that my record has been cleared and efforts to fire or to suspend me have been rescinded. Thank you to so many of you for standing by me during a very hard 15 months.
I believe that the Smithsonian, especially the NMNH, is one of our greatest national assets, and I know that you all serve this institution with pride. I have been humbled to hold a Smithsonian badge for 17 years, starting as an undergraduate intern, progressing to graduate, pre-doctoral, and postdoctoral fellowships, and finally serving as a curator over the past decade. From our scientific and collections staff and fellows, to our education and exhibits teams, to all the dedicated building and custodial staff who make this museum operate in all the real and practical ways, to the remarkable officers who keep us safe, this place has felt like a family to me as much as a workplace. 
Thank you for allowing me this farewell. I hope to see all of you on regular return visits. And come and see us in Australia—our email addresses are listed above.
With best wishes for 2017 (see attached) and all else that is ahead, yours most truly,
kmh
Kris, Lauren, and Daniel Oldfield Helgen

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Cancel my subscription!



CANCEL MY SUBSCRIPTION

by Michael Balter


For telling me what I don’t want known
For showing me what I don’t want shown
For making me hear the victims groan
Cancel my subscription.

For making me think new kinds of thoughts
For tying my world view up in knots
For trying to turn all my naughts to oughts
Cancel my subscription.

For saying I voted for the wrong guy
Though he promised me the moon and sky
For not even giving him time to try
Cancel my subscription.

I’ll find other publications that do
Their best to confirm what I always knew
And assure me all my opinions are true 
So cancel my subscription.
-->

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Brian Richmond, accused of sexual assault, resigns from AMNH, but still maintains his innocence. The fight against sexual misconduct goes on

Brian Richmond
As many readers of this blog will know, Brian Richmond, the curator of human origins at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), is resigning his position effective December 31. According to AMNH communications VP Anne Canty, Richmond's resignation ends an investigation that began early this year into various allegations of sexual assault and harassment. But it should be clear to all that it was actually the investigation's findings that led to his resignation, which would not have been voluntary; in my original reporting on this case for Science last February, Richmond told me that he had been asked to resign in early December 2015 but had refused to do so.

I will offer some personal reflections on this news below. But first I want to comment on this ending to Richmond's career at AMNH and his reaction to it.

An important point is that the museum's most recent investigation--the third it has conducted since late 2014--covered all of the allegations concerning Richmond, which include an alleged sexual assault on one of his coworkers and a long series of allegations of sexual harassment that go back at least a decade (the source of that statement is Canty herself, who made that clear to me when the third investigation began.) Some, but not all, of these episodes are detailed in my original Science piece. In addition to what appears there, I heard testimony from numerous other women about inappropriate sexual advances that Richmond had made to them; some of these witnesses also became part of the museum's broader investigation, which was carried out by T&M Protection Resources in New York City. T&M, with the enormous resources made available to it by AMNH (estimates are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars) was able to talk to some sources I was not, and by all accounts their inquiry was extremely thorough and professional.

Thus there can be little doubt that Richmond would not be resigning at the end of this month had T&M not confirmed, and expanded on, the incriminating evidence from my original investigation. In other words, the preponderance of the evidence must be that Richmond was guilty of repeated counts of sexual misconduct. In addition, the central charge, of sexual assault on a "research assistant" who worked with him at the museum, must also have been upheld. My own reporting produced very convincing evidence that this episode took place and that it was not consensual, as Richmond has always claimed.

But amazingly, after two years of investigation and negative publicity leading to Richmond's resignation, he still appears unwilling to admit to any wrongdoing. Although I communicated extensively with Richmond during the preparation of the Science story, he has not responded to me for many months now. However, he did provide a statement to my former Science colleague, Ann Gibbons, for the story she did on his resignation. As Ann reports:

This week he told Science that the details of his departure are confidential and stressed that only one formal complaint had been lodged against him. “I plan to focus on my family and the next steps in my career,” he wrote in a statement, including “to publish the outstanding discoveries that my colleagues, former students, and I made.”

 In other words, as Richmond (and his attorney) told me nearly a year ago, the fact that none of the other alleged victims of his sexual advances pressed formal charges means that their testimony does not count as evidence against him. But again, many of those alleged victims did talk to T&M. If Richmond was innocent, or if the charges could not be sustained, why is he resigning? That is a question he is apparently not willing to answer.

The fact that Richmond still admits to no wrongdoing will, and should, have a significant negative impact on his future career. After the accusations began to become public, one of his colleagues told me that he had talked to Richmond about how he should handle the negative reaction he was getting from the anthropology community, which tended to believe the research assistant's charges--largely because his prior pattern of behavior was already well known among many of them. This colleague suggested that Richmond should stop denying what everyone knew was true and begin to find a way to apologize for his behavior. But in my Science story, Richmond is quoted as only apologizing for "consensual affairs," and not for any other aspects of his behavior, many of which constitute sexual harassment according to most definitions.

Richmond would have done well to read an excellent piece by Janet Stemwedel, a philosopher of science at San Jose State University, entitled "Advice for the Reformed Harasser on Rejoining the Scientific Community." Stemwedel provides a number of criteria by which we could even think about considering someone found guilty of sexual misconduct to have seen the error of their ways. They include "Own what you did," "Accept the descriptions of the harm you did given by those you harmed," "Have your defenders stand down," and "Don't demand anyone's trust." There are others, but so far it is clear that Brian Richmond has not adopted any of them. (I also cite Stemwedel's brilliant article in my story about sexual misconduct at the Smithsonian Institution and Texas Tech University which appeared in The Verge in October; in that case, at least, the alleged aggressor did admit to two incidents he was involved in, although it did not save his position at the Smithsonian.)

In Richmond's case, many members of the anthropology community tell me that he has virtually no chance of ever finding another job in academia. And while I can't be entirely happy that the career of a talented researcher is now over, it seems clear that he has no one to blame but himself. I see no evidence that the AMNH has ever been out to get him in any way; indeed, the museum has long been criticized for having protected him despite the serious allegations, a subject discussed at length in my original story for Science. And, to paraphrase something Yale astronomer Meg Urry said to me last year, any sympathy that we might be tempted to have for fallen sexual harassers needs to be tempered by our compassion for the hundreds or thousands of women who have left science because they were being harassed by their advisors or other faculty.

I would like to conclude with some brief personal thoughts. I have now spent more than a full year investigating sexual misconduct allegations. My stories have led to real and serious consequences for the alleged perpetrators. For me, they have been draining, depressing, insomnia-producing, not at all fun, and they have occasionally made people mad at me whom I would normally not want to antagonize. Fortunately, I am not the only one doing these stories; as always I want to acknowledge the pioneering role played by Azeen Ghorayshi of Buzzfeed, whose exposure of the Geoff Marcy case at Berkeley opened the doors wide open to this kind of reporting.

They would not have been possible were it not for the courage of researchers, junior and senior, who stepped forward to help with my reporting. I have often had to protect the identities of the junior researchers, who still fear retaliation and other negative consequences for speaking out. I have even had to protect the identities of senior, tenured researchers who have less to fear, but who could still face consequences of various types. And some scientists have been brave enough to come out publicly; by doing so they have made a huge difference. I hope that as time goes on more will find the courage to do so. And I also hope that media outlets, both scientific and general media, will assign more reporters to cover these issues, and make available the resources--time, money, and lawyers--needed to carry out these investigations. Right now, there are too few reporters, and, unfortunately, too many stories yet to be done.








Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Texas Tech biology faculty speak out on sexist remarks caught on video

Texas Tech Museum, site of sexist remarks by biology faculty
(Image: Billy Hathorn/Wikimedia Commons)
Last month, I reported in The Verge on a case of sexual assault at the Smithsonian Institution, which ultimately led to the admitted aggressor, a mammalogist and visiting scientist there, being banned from the SI's National Museum of Natural History. The mammalogist had done some of his graduate training in the biology department at Texas Tech University, which, my reporting showed, had a long history of sexist attitudes among some faculty. Those attitudes were clearly reflected in remarks at a retirement party captured on video, excerpts of which we included in our original story. They led to one of the speakers involved, department chair Ronald Chesser, being forced to step down pending an investigation by the university.

I have now received word from Sean Rice, an evolutionary biologist in the department, that a number of faculty there have signed a statement they wish to make public. I will first quote Rice's explanation to me, with his permission, and then the statement in its entirely. I think it represents evidence that many faculty are taking the problems of sexism and harassment seriously--even if, as Rice explains, not everyone in the department signed it for various reasons. Whether the university administration will respond with equal seriousness to these longstanding issues remains to be seen, as its investigation is still ongoing.


Dear Mr. Balter,

Attached is a statement, by some of the faculty in Biological Sciences at Texas Tech, expressing our views about the video that you featured in your Verge article. Many of us had not seen that video until your article drew our attention to it, and we found it shocking.  The University's own inquiry is ongoing, so our statement addresses only the video, which is not in dispute.

Please keep in mind that some members of the faculty, especially those without tenure, might reasonably feel uneasy about signing a statement of this sort. Others hold administrative positions that preclude them signing as individuals.

Best,
Sean Rice




A statement concerning attitudes towards sexual harassment

  Education and science are collaborative enterprises that thrive only when every participant
respects the basic human dignity of those with whom they work. We believe that respecting
the basic human dignity of our students and colleagues requires more than just protecting
them from direct harassment; it also means providing an environment in which the prospects
of harassment or discrimination are not considered to be within the range of normal behavior.

  We would, ordinarily, think that this should go without saying. However, we are saying
it publicly now because of a video, recently circulating online, that gives what we feel is a
misleading and offensive impression of our department. Though the video is from a retirement  party, the fact that some members of our department appear in it, and that the department's webpage linked to it, compels us to respond.

  The lighthearted portrayal of sexual harassment in this video is appalling and antithetical
to our beliefs about how faculty should treat students or any other members of our community. The fact that the offensive statements were intended as jokes does not reduce their offensiveness. Jokes are meant to be funny, and the teller of a joke conveys clearly that they hold the views necessary to make it funny. The teller further conveys that they assume that their audience shares those views. Whatever the original intent of the jokes, we do not hold the view that the implication that a colleague engages in sexual harassment should be seen as anything other than an accusation or a slur. It is certainly not the stuff of lighthearted fun.

  This is not an attempt to impugn the motives or reputation of any of the people appearing
in the video -- we assume that they intended only to honor a friend, and that the audience
took it this way. This is also not a statement about whether or not any university rules were
violated. We understand that the university is currently investigating events that may be
related to this video, and we have every reason to expect that this inquiry will be thorough
and fair. Regardless of the outcome of any official inquiries, however, we think it important to  affirm that we respect the dignity of our students and will not subject them, or anyone else in  the department, to an environment in which the idea of harassment is treated as an amusing  personality quirk or as a joke.


James Carr             Michael Dini               Breanna Harris                   Lewis Held

Scott Holaday          Liam Mcguire             Matt Olson                         Reynaldo Patino


David Ray                Brian Reilly                Sean Rice                          Ken Schmidt


Dylan Schwilk          Gene Wilde                Zhixin Xie                           Kai Zhang


Wednesday, November 9, 2016

We gambled the future of our country on a deeply flawed candidate, and we lost

Marc Nozell/WikiMedia Commons
In August 2014, I took an oath that I would never vote for Hillary Clinton under any circumstances. There are witnesses. Why? Because her reaction to Israel's invasion of Gaza that year--which left well over a thousand civilians dead, including several hundred children--was as cold and heartless as could be imagined. She staunchly defended Israel and never once, that I was able to tell, expressed any--any--regret about the deaths of the children nor the adults. I found that hard to believe, and still do, but as much as I have searched for an expression of those regrets I have never found them. If any readers of this blog can uncover such sentiments, please forward them on and I will correct this. But the main point is that she cheered on Israel in one of the most murderous campaigns it had ever conducted, one that much of the rest of the world was condemning. And she continued to take the same position when she debated Bernie Sanders on the matter this past spring.

My antagonism towards Clinton, which was based on her politics and not her gender, goes back a long way. She defended nearly every retrogressive policy of her husband, former president Bill Clinton, including "welfare reform" and racist anti-crime policies (perhaps that's why African Americans did not support her with huge enthusiasm in this election, many remember the "super-predator" comment and other statements. Apologies or not, they remember.) As for her vote to support the war in Iraq, is there any doubt that she did that--reportedly at the urging of Bill--as an opportunistic move to protect her reputation as a possible future Commander-in-Chief? In other words, she voted to sacrifice the lives of thousands of Iraqis and Americans to preserve her options as an eventual presidential candidate, without seriously studying the matter, and without heeding the wisdom of those brave few legislators who saw through the Bush bullshit on WMD.

Similarly, she failed to back same-sex marriage and a serious minimum wage until political considerations pushed her into it, and she only adopted more progressive positions this year as Bernie Sanders began to seriously challenge her during the primaries.

(An aside about Bill Clinton: His affair with Monica Lewinsky would be recognized by many of Hillary's supporters as a non-consensual sexual relationship due to its severe power imbalance. But somehow the idea of having Bill in the White House doesn't phase many of them--yet it's a powerful negative image for Republican voters, including those who don't necessarily approve of Trump's sexist words and deeds.)

When Hillary won the primary, I went back on my vow never to vote for her. Of course I did not want to see Trump win. But I feared, as did so many of us who supported Bernie, that her candidacy would hand us a Trump presidency. It didn't matter that Bernie himself might have difficulty defeating Trump. Clinton was a known quantity with serious baggage and negative ratings as bad as Trump's. Her candidacy was a disaster waiting to happen, and it did. That's because so few of us liberals and progressives were willing to believe that we could so misread the American public--yet we did, as did so much of the news media.

During the past months I refrained (usually) from criticizing Clinton online, even though I knew that the minute she won honest progressives would have to start doing it again. We would need to hold her feet to the fire and insure that she became the president she was promising to be--even if that meant alienating some of her most fervent supporters, to whom all her clear flaws were inventions by right-wing activists and politicians (those pesky emails would never have given Comey a chance to sabotage the election if she had not used that private server in the first place, a glaring symptom of her deep character flaws and her selfish approach to her brand of entitlement politics.)

Moreover--and here is where I am bound to get into serious trouble, but it needs to be said--the kind of take-no-prisoners feminism that was clearly out to intimidate anyone who raised questions about her character left little room for serious discussion. That kind of rhetoric has now seriously backfired, with its dishonest talk about "Bernie Bros" (almost all my women friends voted for Bernie, and the great majority of Bernie supporters voted for Clinton) and its bullying approach. Just today I came under fire from some feminists on Facebook because I dared to suggest that Clinton was a seriously flawed candidate, despite my concrete track record as a fighter (journalistically) on sexual misconduct issues.

We desperately needed a woman president, to right the wrong of more than 230 years of exclusive male rule. We needed an anti-sexist, anti-racist candidate who had the interests of all Americans at heart, especially after 8 years of a frankly very disappointing Obama presidency. I actually thought, as election night approached, that Clinton might be that candidate; that she might, with her mixture of long-time liberal politics and pragmatism, actually succeed where Obama mostly failed. But I was only fooling myself. Of course, Trump was able to tap into a thick, venomous vein of racism and sexism to secure his victory. If I thought Hillary Clinton was the right person to counter that, I was forgetting who she really was. Those fellow Americans who voted for Trump include racists and sexists, to be sure, but they also include millions who didn't have any illusions about Clinton and could not bring themselves to vote for her. They did not forget who she was. Like it or not, they will have to be taken into account in any plans that progressives and liberals think they might be making for the future.

For now, however, we are the losers, Bigly.

Update: I was glad to see Frank Bruni express regrets about Clinton's candidacy, and criticisms of the judgements it represented, in the New York Times. A key quote:

"There was an arrogance and foolishness to lining up behind Hillary Clinton as soon as so many Democratic leaders did, and to putting all their chips on her.
She fit the circumstances of 2016 awkwardly, in the same way that Jeb Bush did."

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Is the Texas Tech administration lying to the public, or is the leadership of its biology department--under fire for a culture of sexism and sexual harassment--lying to the administration?

Texas Tech University, Lubbock
As regular readers of this blog know, on October 24 I published a lengthy investigative piece in The Verge that traced a trail of sexual harassment from Texas Tech University to the Smithsonian Institution. The trail began in TTU's biology department, where, according to numerous present and former department members, a culture of sexism had reigned for decades. The article included some video excerpts of the department chair, Ron Chesser, making some pretty incredibly sexist remarks during a retirement party last year for mammalogist Robert Baker.
TTU's communications chief, Chris Cook, confirmed for the article that Chesser had been made to step down as department chair on an interim basis while an investigation was conducted. This action is confirmed in the memos I reproduce below. Chesser also issued an apology to the department for his remarks at the party, although some researchers found it wanting.
Today I am told by department members that Chesser is, in fact, still acting as chair of the department, occupying the same chairman's office and issuing memos signed with his name and title. I queried Chris Cook about this, who said that he did not know about it and that he had alerted the "appropriate" administrator or administrators. The latter supposedly took action, although Cook did not know what action. The department members sent me several emails signed in this way by Chesser in just the past days. I will not bore readers with the details of the memos  Chesser signed, as they are of little general interest, but I am cutting and pasting the signature he used here:
*Dr. Ronald K. Chesser*
Chairman & Professor
Department of Biological Sciences
Texas Tech University
Lubbock, Texas 79409-3131

Also today, I received a message from a Vice-Chancellor at the university, John Huffaker, asking me to encourage my sources for the story to talk to the administration for the investigation. I am also reproducing this message below, with Mr. Huffaker's permission. As I explained to both Chris Cook and Mr. Huffaker, it would be difficult for department members to trust the administration with their identities and their stories given this clear evidence that Chesser is still the head of the department and that the investigation could be a sham. However, if anyone cares to do so, you now have the contact details for him.
Is someone lying here? Is the administration lying to me about making Chesser step down, or is the department leadership (and possibly a dean) misleading the administration into thinking that Chesser had stepped down when he had not? Several members of the biology department have concluded that the investigation is just a sham. I hope they are wrong, or that TTU will get serious about this.

John Huffaker to Michael Balter today
In your recent article, “From Texas to the Smithsonian, …” you refer to comments attributed to former students, and, in one instance, a current student, which comments tend to confirm concerns regarding the Texas Tech Biology department.  After inquiry, our office has not been able to locate any complaints made on this subject  in the several years for which records are available.  While we recognize that your sources may wish to maintain confidentiality, would you consider contacting these individuals to determine if they would be willing to speak to representatives of my office?  It would aid our efforts in this inquiry.


John Huffaker
Vice Chancellor & General Counsel
Texas Tech University System
P.O. Box 42021
Lubbock, TX  79409
(806) 742-2155 (Phone)


First memo concerning the department chair

To:       Faculty and Staff in Biological Sciences
From: W Brent Lindquist, Dean
Re:      Temporary change in department leadership
Date:  October 5, 2016

Prof. John Zak will be assuming the duties of chair of Biological Sciences
effective Oct 6, 2016 for a temporary period of time.

Please address questions regarding this temporary change to Dr. Zak.


W. Brent Lindquist
Dean, Arts and Sciences
Professor, Mathematics and Statistics
Professor, Geosciences
Texas Tech University

Second memo concerning the department chair
October 6, 2016
To all members of the Department of Biological Sciences

Gang,
As indicated in the memo from the Dean yesterday afternoon, I will be temporarily assuming the duties of Chair of Biological Sciences as of Thursday, October 6th. This temporary change in the department has been implemented to help facilitate an internal investigation by the University with regards to the enquiries and acquisitions made by a reporter from The Verge against our department. The change is to help facilitate the process, and provide transparency; nothing more. 
I will be over primarily in the afternoons for a couple of hours to deal with departmental issues and to take care of our collective business as a department. We will continue with all of our on-going activities and weekly events as planned. I will keep you updated as I learn more about the process over the next week.
I would also ask that you refer all external questions concerning any aspect of previous events or enquires from the media to Chris Cook (Managing Director for Communications). Please copy me on all e-mails to Chris. 
If you have any questions or other issues you need to discuss, our department has always had an open door policy and a willingness to listen to each other. Please stop in to talk as I am available during the day or after 5:00 in the Dean’s Office
We have a great department because we do try to help and support each other. We will continue to do so every day during this process.
Thanks much,
John

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John Zak

Update: Meanwhile, mammalogist Miguel Pinto, who came straight out of Robert Baker's lab and the apparent seething sexism of some corners of the TTU biology department, has been banned from the Smithsonian for a pattern of sexual harassment that began in Lubbock and ended (hopefully) in Washington, DC.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

National Museum of Natural History director Kirk Johnson responds to sexual misconduct issues

Ocean Hall at the NMNH (WikiMedia)
Yesterday, in response to an article last week in The Verge relating the story of a research student named "Angie" who was sexually assaulted at the National Museum of Natural History, NMNH director Kirk Johnson issued the followed statement to staff, fellows, and other museum associates. Also yesterday, Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA) called upon the Smithsonian Institution (which runs the NMNH) to investigate the mishandling of this case. I discussed both of these developments in an update story yesterday, but we did not have space to reproduce the entire statement from Johnson (although we did reproduce Rep Speier's letter to the SI's Inspector General in its entirety.)

I will leave it to readers to judge the seriousness of Johnson's memo, but one thing did strike me: The presentation on sexual harassment mentioned at the end will take place at an all-staff meeting the morning after the U.S. presidential election. I'm not sure how well NMNH researchers and staff will be able to concentrate on the subject immediately after a major historical event. Perhaps not the ideal timing for such an important discussion?





Dear NMNH Colleagues,

I’m sure I am not alone in the dismay and sadness I have felt in recent months as report after report has underscored the serious threat of sexism and sexual misconduct in the workplace. This is an issue that affects all of us, and one that weighs heavily on my mind as the person who bears responsibility for the safety and well-being of all members of the NMNH community. This is a responsibility that we all share. I’m writing to you to acknowledge those among you who have courageously raised your concerns about whether we are doing all that we can to ensure a harassment-free environment, to invite further discussion within our community, and to highlight the important protections that are already in place at NMNH.

As communicated by Secretary Skorton to all Smithsonian staff on October 7, we address reports of workplace harassment (including sexual harassment) through a formal process led by the Office of Equal Employment and Minority Affairs. These procedures are outlined in the Prevention of Workplace Harassment Policy Statement issued to all employees, and codified in Smithsonian Directive 214. All Smithsonian staff must complete prevention of workplace harassment training every three years. An anti-harassment hotline (202-633-6620) is available for individuals who do not feel comfortable discussing the issue with their supervisor or supervisory chain.

I would like to reinforce these policies and reaffirm that all members of our community (employees, contractors, fellows, agency partners, volunteers, and interns) should know that they have the right to confidentiality, and that they will have support if they bring to light any incident of sexual harassment, or harassment of any kind.

Our next all-staff meeting will occur on Wednesday, November 9, at 10:30 AM and will include a presentation on our procedures for preventing and responding to sexual harassment.

I am committed to dialogue on this important subject, and to making improvements to ensure a safe, harassment-free workplace. I am grateful for your support on this important issue and I invite your feedback and suggestions.

Sincerely,

Kirk

Kirk Johnson
Sant Director