Attendees of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology's recent virtual conference had a b*** to pick after profanity filters blocked them from using relevant archaeological terms including "stream," "sexual," and of course the world's brashest b-word -- "bone" during post-presentation Q and A sessions earlier this week.
The culprit? "a pre-packaged naughty-word-filter," according to paleontologist and society member, Stephanie Drumheller, which banned several crucial terms in the field of paleontology that may otherwise be considered inappropriate in a professional environment. "After getting a good belly laugh out of the way on the first day and some creative wording (my personal favorite was Heck Creek for Hell Creek), some of us reached out to the business office and they've been un-banning words as we stumble across them," she said. After all, as Carleton University biology masters student, Brigid Christison told Vice Media, "Words like 'bone,' 'pubic,' and 'stream' are frankly ridiculous to ban in a field where we regularly find pubic bones in streams,"
As a result, attendees were forced to work together in outsmarting the filter as conference staff raced to resolve the issue. Conference-goers took to Twitter to warn others of what words were and were not banned, as a Google Doc archived which terms were forbidden and whether or not they had been fixed.
Although looking at this list, I'm legitimately curious when and why paleontologists have reason to drop the f-bomb at work, but who am I to judge? I'm a writer with a beat covering "sexy" mac and cheese advertising campaigns and priestly threesomes.
Yet curse words and aside, the filter exposed some potentially concerning racial biases -- the name "Wang" was banned, while "Johnson" was considered acceptable. "I personally know of several vertebrate paleontologists by that surname. It didn't seem right, so I typed in other synonymous slangs into the Q&A platform and realized the bias that I tweeted about," said Z. Jack Tseng, who works as an assistant professor at U.C. Berkeley and an assistant curator at the University's paleontology museum. "In general, text filter algorithms probably involve human decisions at some point in their creation and implementation, so recognizing these biases at the design level, even if it takes more time to develop, would go a long way in creating a more welcoming environment for all participants. We are in such a well-connected world today, that our technology should continue to change with the times."
Although the Conference is slated to end today, make no bones about it, the filter definitely made the virtual gathering one to remember -- can you dig it?