Profanity Filter Censors the Word 'Bone' at Paleontology Conference

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Image courtesy Jon Butterworth on Unsplash.

“Most funny to us was the censorship of ‘bone,’ which, after all, are the main thing we work with."

Per the recent usual, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology conference was held online this year. The 80th annual gathering of fossil and bone enthusiasts used a virtual platform, provided by Convey Services, that came with a pre-packaged naughty-word-filter. While the filter was surely good-intentioned, it had unintended consequences.

Thomas R. Holtz Jr., a Tyrannosaurus rex expert at the University of Maryland, typed out “Hell Creek Formation” to answer a colleague’s question. Holtz’s message appeared in the chat, but read instead as “**** Creek Formation.”

Holtz and others came together on Twitter to suss out all the banned words they could find. There were the usual suspects—your four-letter obscenities—but there were tons of words that paleontologists use all the time that have an uncouth slang meaning.

“Most funny to us was the censorship of ‘bone,’ which, after all, are the main thing we work with,” said Holtz.

Other banned words included ball, beaver, crack, dyke, enlargement, erection, jerk, knob, pubis, stream, stroke, and wang.  

“Words like ‘bone,’ ‘pubic’, and ‘stream’ are frankly ridiculous to ban in a field where we regularly find pubic bones in streams,” said Brigid Christison, a masters' student in biology at Carleton University.

Stephanie Drumheller, a paleontologist at the University of Tennessee, described how the problem began to be fixed in a Reddit thread.

“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," said Drumheller. "It takes a little time to filter from Twitter to the platform programmers, but it's getting fixed slowly.”

Unintended Bias

Z. Jack Tseng, an assistant professor of integrative biology at UC Berkeley and an assistant curator at the University of California Museum of Paleontology, noticed something particularly egregious about the profanity filter:

“At first, when fellow conference attendees noted on Twitter that ‘Hell’ and ‘bone’ were banned, I was very amused by it. I figured the filter was simply over-tuned to prevent many slang words used by schoolchildren from being shown in a professional meeting. I became disturbed when I saw that the crowd-sourced list of banned words included ‘Wang'. 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.”

Have you had a worse virtual conference experience? Would you appreciate a profanity filter for your online engagements, or does it cause more harm than good? Leave a comment and let us know!

In the meantime, please bear with us while we offer one more Friends reference. Obviously, this whole situation required some pivoting on the part of the paleontologists ... Sounds like they pivoted better than Ross did!