## NIPS vs. NeurIPS: guest post by Steven Pinker

Scott’s Update (Dec. 26): Comments on this post are now closed, since I felt that whatever progress could be made, had been, and I wanted to move on to more interesting topics. Thanks so much to everyone who came here to hash things out in good faith—which, as far as I’m concerned, included the majority of the participants on both sides.

If you want to see the position paper that led to the name change movement, see What’s In A Name? The Need to Nip NIPS, by Daniela Witten, Elana Fertig, Anima Anandkumar, and Jeff Dean. I apologize for not linking to this paper in the original post.

To recap what I said many times in this post and the comments: I myself am totally fine with the name NeurIPS. I think several of the arguments for changing the name were good arguments—and I thank some of the commenters on this post for elucidating those arguments without shaming anybody or calling them names. In any case the decision is done, and it belongs to the ML community, not to me and not to Steven Pinker.

The one part that I’m against is the bullying of anyone who disagrees by smearing them as a misogynist. And then, recursively, the smearing as a misogynist of anyone who objected to that bullying, and so on and so on. Most supporters of the name change did not engage in such bullying, but one leader of the movement very conspicuously did, and continues to do it even now (to, I’m told, the consternation even of many of her allies).

Since this post went up, something extremely interesting happened: Steven Pinker and I started getting emails from researchers in the NeurIPS community that said, in various words: “thank you for openly airing perspectives that we could not air, without jeopardizing our careers.” We were told that even women in ML, and even those who agreed with the activists on most points, could no longer voice opposition without risking their hiring or tenure. This put into a slightly different light, I thought, the constant claims of some movement leaders about their own marginalization and powerlessness.

Since I was 7 or 8 years old, the moral lodestar of my life has been my yearning (too often left unfulfilled) to stand up to the world’s bullies. Bullies come in all shapes and sizes: some are gangsters or men who sexually exploit vulnerable women; one, alas, is even the President of the United States. But bullying knows no bounds of ideology or gender. Some bullies resort to whisper networks, or Twitter shaming campaigns, or their power in academic hierarchies, to shut down dissenting voices. With the latter kinds of bully—well, to whatever extent this blog is now in a position to make some difference, I’d feel morally complicit if it didn’t.

As I wrote in the comments: may the 2020s be an era of intellectual freedom, compassion, and understanding for all people regardless of background. –SA

Scott’s prologue:

Happy Christmas and Merry Chanukah!

As a followup to last Thursday’s post about the term “quantum supremacy,” today all of us here at Shtetl-Optimized are humbled to host a guest post by Steven Pinker: the Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, and author of The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, Enlightenment Now (which I reviewed here), and other books.

The former NIPS—Neural Information Processing Systems—has been the premier conference for machine learning for 30 years. As many readers might know, last year NIPS changed its name to NeurIPS: ironically, giving greater emphasis to an aspect that I’m told has been de-emphasized at that conference over time. The reason, apparently, was that some male attendees had made puns involving the acronym “NIPS” and nipples.

I confess that the name change took me by surprise, simply because it had never occurred to me to make the NIPS/nipples connection—not when I gave a plenary at NIPS in 2012, and not when my collaborators and I coauthored a NIPS paper. It’s not that I’m averse to puerile humor. It’s just that neither I, nor anyone else I knew, had apparently ever felt the need for a shorthand for “nipples.” Of course, once I did learn about this controversy, it became hard to hear “NIPS” without thinking about it.

Steve’s guest post today consists of his response to this email. (He told me that, after sending it, he received no further responses.)

I don’t have any dog in the NIPS/NeurIPS debate, being at most on the “margin” (har!) of machine learning. And in any case the debate ended a year ago: the name is now NeurIPS and it’s not changing back. Reopening the issue would seem to invite a strong risk of social-media denunciation for no possible gain.

So why am I doing this? Mostly because I thought it was in the interest of humanity to know that, even when Steven Pinker is answering someone’s email, with no expectation that his reply will be made public, he writes the same way he does in his books: with clarity, humor, and an amusing quote from his mom.

But also because—again, without taking a position on the NIPS vs. NeurIPS issue itself—there’s a tactic displayed by Pinker’s detractors that fundamentally grates on me. This is where you pretend to an open mind, but it turns out that you’re open only to the possibility that your opponent might not have read enough reports and studies to “do better”—i.e., that they sinned out of ignorance rather than out of malice. You don’t open your mind even a crack to the possibility that the opponent might have a point.

Without further ado, here’s Steven Pinker’s email:

I appreciate your frank comments. At the same time, I do not agree with them. Please allow me to explain.

If this were a matter of sexual harassment or other hostile behavior toward women, I would of course support strong measures to combat it. Any member of the Symposium who uttered demeaning comments toward or about women certainly deserves censure.

But that is not what is at issue here. It’s an utterly irrelevant matter: the three-decades-old acronym for the Neural Information Processing Symposium, the pleasingly pronounceable NIPS. To state what should be obvious: nip is not a sexual word. As Chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, I can support this claim.

(And as my mother wrote to me: “I don’t get it. I thought Nips was a brand of caramel candy.”)  [Indeed, I enjoyed those candies as a kid. –SA] Even if people with an adolescent mindset think of nipples when hearing the sound “nips,” the society should not endorse the idea that the concept of nipples is sexist. Men have nipples too, and women’s nipples evolved as organs of nursing, not sexual gratification. Indeed, many feminists have argued that it’s sexist to conceptualize women’s bodies from the point of view of male sexuality.

If some people make insulting puns that demean women, the society should condemn them for the insults, not concede to their puerility by endorsing their appropriation of an innocent sound. (The Linguistics Society of America and Boston Debate League do not change their names to disavow jejune clichés about cunning linguists and master debaters.) To act as if anything with the remotest connection to sexuality must be censored to protect delicate female sensibilities is insulting to women and reminiscent of prissy Victorian taboos against uncovered piano legs or the phrase “with the naked eye.”

Any harm to the community of computer scientists has been done not by me but by the pressure group and the Symposium’s surrender. As a public figure who hears from a broad range of people outside the academic bubble, I can tell you that this episode has not played well. It’s seen as the latest sign that academia has lost its mind—that it has traded reasoned argument, conceptual rigor, proportionality, and common sense for prudish censoriousness, snowflake sensibility, and virtue signaling. I often hear from intelligent non-leftists, “Why should I be impressed by the scientific consensus on climate change? Everyone knows that academics just fall into line with the politically correct position.” To secure the credibility of the academy, we have to make reasoned distinctions, and stop turning our enterprise into a laughingstock.

To repeat: none of this deprecates the important effort to stamp out harassment and misogyny in science, which I’m well aware of and thoroughly support, but which has nothing to do with the acronym NIPS.

Best,
Steve

### 115 Responses to “NIPS vs. NeurIPS: guest post by Steven Pinker”

1. Raetihi Says:

When I first read that the acronym “NIPS” had been changed, I assumed it was because it is an ethnic slur used to describe Japanese people: https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Nip . That reason would have made at least some sense. But apparently no one even mentioned that as an argument? The nipple argument is just ridiculous.

2. Raetihi Says:

Better reference for the ethnic slur: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nip .

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conference_on_Neural_Information_Processing_Systems claims that the ethnic slur argument was indeed a reason for the name change.

However, https://nips.cc/Conferences/2018/News#demo-2110 does not mention this directly. Instead, they say: “Some respondents [of the name change poll] wondered whether the name [NIPS] was deliberately selected for a double entendre. It was not. The name was selected in 1987, and sources such as Oxford English Dictionary show the slang reference to a body part did not come into usage until years later.”

But the ethnic slur existed since the 1940s! Shouldn’t that have been the focus of the discussion? One respondent of the poll is quoted as follows: “Please, please please change the name. It is sexist and a racist slur!!! I’m embarrassed every time I have to say the name of the conference.” This is the only mention of the ethnic slur argument I could find in the original discussion.

I can follow THAT argument for a name change. Who would want to go to a conference called, say, “CHINKS 2018”?

3. Prasanth Says:

Hey Scott and Steve,
@Scott- just because you din’t experience people making jokes abt NIPS doesn’t make it okay to say NIPS is a ‘fine’ acronym for a international conference. I’ve seen/heard plenty of newcomers or even undergrads/gradstuds make precisely the connection that the proponents for name change mentioned. As much as I welcome your opinions on any subject, to say I dint experience it, hence it can’t be true is a lame excuse– and I know you know it (or really hope so).

@Steven- It isn’t about your mother relating to whether NIPS has an obscure reference. It is about whether newcomers make/draw such a connection and the consequences of it on other newcomers — especially of all genders. It really can not be that difficult to understand, unless you are ideologically, against a change, for reasons of personal/professional interest.

4. domotorp Says:

Without arguing pro or contra the name change, let me add that I was very surprised when I first heard of NIPS, because (as a non-native speaker) I had only heard the expression before as an ethnic slur and from this Seinfeld episode: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Pick

5. MarkusAreolaeus Says:

It’s a well known fact that the A/C technicians for the venues hosting NIPS were routinely paid to keep the temperatures extra cold. Lots of people are saying that.
Also remember when the overton window was between wether the IBM thinkpad trackpoint should be referred as the ‘clit’ or the ‘nipple’. Good times.

6. Scott Says:

Prasanth #3: I take no firm position whether the name change was a good idea. Or whether it was a good idea but only for the other, ethnic slur reason (which also never occurred to me—I’m just totally not up on offensive words!)

Note that, while I truthfully related my experience—and while Nips the candies are sufficiently non-obscure for me and Steven Pinker’s mom both to know them!—I never doubted the reports that some attendees did make juvenile nip/nipple puns. My point was more like: anybody who would make such a pun, probably has a sufficiently “fertile” mind that they could find a sexual organ or act in half the English language. So then why let them drag your own thoughts back to the junior-high locker room?

Come to think of it, the strongest argument in favor of “NeurIPS” is simply that, while “NIPS” might have been a fine name originally, it isn’t anymore, now that the frat boys and the woke activists have successfully collaborated to amplify the “nipple” meaning into everyone else’s consciousness! 😀

Anyway, I’m well aware of more extreme cases. When I was 14, I took a writing course at Beaver College, which is now called Arcadia University. What would’ve been called the Toyota Institute of Technology is instead called the Toyota Technological Institute, for reasons left as an exercise. And the building I work in, at UT Austin, is right next to what used to be called the Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences—yes, there was an “ICES stronghold” on my doorstep. It’s since been renamed the Oden Institute. But those were cases where there was no possibility of the issue laying dormant.

7. Sam Says:

God, I don’t understand why one would engage with the name change on such deliberately bad faith. The state of affairs is rather simple: some people in the community were uncomfortable with the name, and the community decided to change it on those grounds. This is an act of accommodation; it’s not made out of being forced’ (there is the obvious cultural context of claims that PC culture forcing people to do stuff’ of which SP’s response seems like an example, though I’m not committed to that claim), it’s made out of the values the underly the community. It is also not a surrender’, a word Pinker uses; this a group of people cooperating. Any other community which considers the NeurIPS community a laughingstock’ on the basis of cooperating with its members contains somewhere in it a pretty twisted value system.

I feel the need to respond specifically to the claim that Indeed, many feminists have argued that it’s sexist to conceptualize women’s bodies from the point of view of male sexuality’. This seems like an essential misinterpretation of the logic of feminist literature and the rhetorical trick being used is embarrassingly transparent. Suppose that 1. it is sexist to conceptualize women’s bodies from the point of view of male sexuality and that 2. a given culture predominantly uses representations/cultural symbols of women’s bodies from the point of view of mail sexuality. If we’re attempting to resolve 2. in accordance with 1., one doesn’t *avoid* the fact the cultural representations of women’s bodies are sexist (to be clear, this is exactly what you’re suggesting with “the society should not endorse the idea that the concept of nipples is sexist”): they *engage* with the sexism in order to repair it directly. Sure: in a perfect world where 2. never actually happened because usage only developed around the biological role of nipples, then I think Pinker’s argument is correct. The problem is the 2. is just demonstrably not true, and rejecting it is an act of bad faith.

Do a google image search of NIPS (I say image because the first page of web results are all related to NeurIPS), and you’ll quickly see (at least in the US) a cultural association with nipples (of course, one may not have noticed this prior to the NeurIPS name change, but it clearly exists). This is obviously an imperfect representation of cultural association, but I don’t believe it’s vacuous (it’s based on usage). These images clearly tend towards women – some of them are free the nipple’-type apparel where as others are pretty clearly sexualization. Moreover, if people *directly claim* that “nips” is associated to nipples (with women’s nipples in particular being a sexualized object in US culture), then the only reasonable thing to do is believe them and cooperate. If they were lying’ or wrong’ and the result was the NIPS was changed to NeurIPS, the cost of doing this is minimal compared to the cost of directly broadcasting a symbol which many people in the community believe could lead to acts where sexist images can be quietly reinforced (e.g. men at NeurIPS making jokes about nipples).

Pinker is treating this like some type of zero sum game which to me seems like a basically inaccurate view on the notion scientific community. To me, his email, it is coy, avoidant and fails to acknowledge the fact that other people witness symbols in ways that he does not. Obviously, words are generally taken to mean how they are defined in dictionaries, at least in a coarse-grained sense, since these generally coincide with their usage. But usage does not occur in some platonic vacuum, something which Pinker should be familiar with if he serves as the chair of a Usage Panel’ on the American Heritage Dictionary. Usage changes and cultural associations change, and adjusting our visible cultural symbols on that basis indicates to me an act of responsibility, not an act representing prudish censoriousness, snowflake sensibility, and virtue signaling’.

8. Pratyush Says:

> Indeed, many feminists have argued that it’s sexist to conceptualize women’s bodies from the point of view of male sexuality.

For this argument to apply, women need to first feel safe expressing their opinions in the community. This isn’t possible when said community has events called NIPS and “tits.ai”. (It’s terribly naive to think said puns refer to male nipples in a community where 80% of participants are straight males)

9. ML researcher Says:

Sadly the academia and also parts of the tech industry have reached the point where sensible debate around many gender-related issues has been marginalized. It has been replaced by bullying, public shaming and intolerance for any disagreement. I’ve heard from even the most senior and distinguished female technical leaders that they are worried about voicing any dissenting opinion in public. And good luck if you happen to be a white male.

The harm that the likes of Anima have done and continue doing to our community is immense. Most importantly, they appear to not understand the most basic part of human nature: one cannot change the views and opinions by bullying the community into submission. So their activism does not promote any healthy progress, discredits the whole community and can eventually lead to a backlash.

Another concerning (but not surprising) phenomenon is that a lot of such activism is self-serving. Technically mediocre researchers end up in leadership positions based on their ideological purity and all-out activism.

10. Prasanth Says:

@Scott — I understand your stance, and would like to make mine more clear. The “ethnic slur” — I only learnt of it while the debate of name change for the conference was happening. Previously, as an adept-L2-Eng-speaker, I din’t know of it and even today it doesn’t hurt me. But let’s move above it (You and I seem to be privileged enough to do this, while others may not be.)

The rest, as you say, “juvenile puns”, “fertile minds” .. are to me the crux of the problem. Neither of them are true. I want you to understand that NIPS .. being an international conf.. .. with submissions from many young grad. students .. might not share your definition of juvenile or fertile. And here is one choice — accept only those participants who share your/acceptable definition of ‘juvenile’ & ‘fertile’ or make sure that the definition of those specific terms is accepting to everyone. My opinion — the proponents were trying to accept as many as possible without any bias (again, I don’t know any of those proponents but I get the stance).

11. E. Pubius Unum Says:

And who can forget the laboratory instruments industry association (now the physics laboratory appliances society) debacle.

12. jk20 Says:

Scott, was the last sentence about opening a crack just an unintended irony?

13. Shecky R Says:

Going down this road of policing language (and acronyms) due to potential offensiveness quickly becomes unending… it’s simply too easy to find subjective faults (sometimes real, sometimes imagined) with 100s of words… better that people be taught early on to grow a spine when it comes to language (generations of children are told ‘sticks & stones may break my bones but words shall never hurt me’ yet few take it to heart).
…and p.s., the number “69” should certainly be eternally dropped from all academic conferences and publications forthwith!!
I’ll end by letting George Carlin have the last word(s):

14. Les Hapablap Says:

Pratyush,

>For this argument to apply, women need to first feel safe expressing their opinions in the community. This isn’t possible when said community has events called NIPS

This is so bizarre to me. Where I live and work, no woman would be bothered by this. If I even asked if something like this made them feel ‘unsafe,’ they would mock me mercilessly and I would never live it down. It is unbelievably condescending.

Is this is how American men in science view women? Or, even worse, is it how American women view themselves?

15. Gil Kalai Says:

Those (mainly women) who objected to the old acronym thought that it was insulting towards women (and encouraged demeaning acts against women), while Steve Pinker thought that the pressure to change the name and the surrender to this pressure were by themselves insulting to women. (And harmful to science.)

I have two comments to make. First I think that on the  issue of  what is insulting to women and what is encouraging to women we should give more weight to women’s views. The second is that  bringing this controversy back to life can be, to some extent, disturbing to women, whether you discuss if the old name has or has no sexual connotation, or whether you discuss if changing the name for “protecting delicate female sensibilities” is by itself insulting to women.

(For full disclosure, my view is completely against Pinker’s view.  But my comments are meant to be orthogonal.)

16. Tom H Says:

Scott says:

Come to think of it, the strongest argument in favor of “NeurIPS” is simply that, while “NIPS” might have been a fine name originally, it isn’t anymore, now that the frat boys and the woke activists have successfully collaborated to amplify the “nipple” meaning into everyone else’s consciousness!

I agree that “NIPS” may have been a fine name originally. I think you would be hard pushed to find many real-life “woke activists” who don’t. The second part is uncharitable though. If somebody uses language in away that is widely regarded to be hurtful, and somebody who is hurt by the language tells them not to do it, I don’t think they equally share the blame for amplifying the hurtful usage, and I wouldn’t call that “collaboration”.

I might have more sympathy with this point of view if it were a case of an enormous over-reaction by activists on the basis of a few puerile jokes by bad apples, but so far as I can see that’s not the case. In 2007 there was an unofficial satellite event named “tits.ai”; Elon Musk made jokes about “nips” and “tits” in his keynote. A band composed partly of senior academics in ML and stats made jokes about sexual assault during their performance at the closing party. (One of those academics, Steven Scott, lost their job at google shortly afterwards as a result of a pattern of harassment at conferences).

Perhaps, as Pinker suggests, censuring these people would be a better way of stopping this behavior than a name change, but I don’t expect throwing half of the leaders in the field out of the conference on the basis of their language to be a widely-agreed-upon solution. What else can be done? Changing the name isn’t going to solve the problem of sexual harassment at conferences overnight, nor is it going to immediately stop some men making jokes that signal to female engineers that their primary value is as sexual objects, but it at least signals that such behavior is frowned upon and empowers people to call it out. Pinker may call this “virtue signalling”, I prefer to think of it as a warning that shouldn’t be necessary, but sadly is.

17. anonymous Says:

I don’t see anything wrong with NIPS. In fact, I invite anyone who does to suck on my NIPS.

[On reflection, as discussed below, I should’ve left this uninspiring attempt at humor in moderation. —SA]

18. Ian Price Says:

Is there any better argument that this may have been necessary than some of the responses to this article? In fact, I question your moderation policy when #17 makes it though when it provides even less to the debate than the standard nonarguments about political correctness we’ve already seen.

Since Pinker doesn’t make the argument that people are not thinking of nipples when they hear NIPS, a finding upheld by a cursory google search (as already mentioned), the only real question is “is this a problem”. The one thing I didn’t hear, is whether or not we can subject this to a viable somewhat objective test on the harm done, either by turning to legal standards around harassment, and hostile work environments, we could look at the patterns of puerile adolescent behavior across conferences, or you know, straight out ask women how they’d feel about attending a conference called NIPS. The blatant irony of the “insulting to women” line is that that is not happening when it’s just a bunch of white guys (myself included) arguing about language

19. Scott Says:

Ian Price #18: On reflection, you’re right about #17. It may well have been nothing more than a crude attempt at humor, but if so, it contributes nothing new even as humor. Any additional comments at the same … err … level of analysis will be left in moderation.

20. Peter S. Shenkin Says:

Oy.

21. r Says:

Pinker cannot simply state “To state what should be obvious: nip is not a sexual word.” as though his authority (or ignorance) makes it true. If he had literally taken 10 seconds to (as Sam suggested) do a Google image search for ‘nips’, he would plainly see that it is a known sexual (and fairly clearly sexist) term.

I had to stop reading his response at this point — how can he be so high and mighty and definitive on its non-sexuality, and his authority as a usage expert, if he can’t even Google it for god’s sake?

22. r2 Says:

Following up on my previous comment: Here’s an SNL clip from yesterday where they used the slang ‘nips’ in its (IMO) well-known sense of ‘nipples’:

https://youtu.be/142DfJ4Ch1U?t=524

23. Scott Says:

r #21: I was curious, so I just tried it. You get a mixture of Nips candy, a different snack called Cheese Nips that I only vaguely remembered, humanoid robots somehow meant to illustrate the NIPS conference (and the story of its renaming to NeurIPS), and men and women proudly and smilingly displaying nipples, the women through t-shirts (for some reason many of them were Jennifer Aniston). Interestingly, you get this whether SafeSearch is on or off—i.e., Google does not judge a woman in a white t-shirt to be an “explicit result” in need of filtering.

In short: Pinker’s mom’s reality, the academics’ former reality, and the adolescent males’ and social justice activists’ curiously shared reality were all represented. Google aims to please.

Pinker, of course, had explicitly written:

Even if people with an adolescent mindset think of nipples when hearing the sound “nips,” the society should not endorse the idea that the concept of nipples is sexist. Men have nipples too, and women’s nipples evolved as organs of nursing, not sexual gratification. Indeed, many feminists have argued that it’s sexist to conceptualize women’s bodies from the point of view of male sexuality.

Actually, though, seeing all these images juxtaposed inspired a different thought. Namely, shouldn’t there also be a campaign to get Nips candy and Cheese Nips to change their names? If not, why not?

What if the buyers of Nips candy turned out to skew male, or more so than the buyers of Werther’s Original and Milk Duds and so forth? Would that be evidence in favor of the hypothesis of the word “nips” creating a hostile environment for women? Conversely, though, if the buyers of Nips candy turned out not to skew more male than the buyers of other caramel candies, would that count as evidence against that hypothesis?

(One could similarly ask: did the attendance at NIPS skew more male than the attendance at ICML, AAAI, COLT, etc.?)

24. Edan Maor Says:

Not to pile on, but for what it’s worth, when I first heard the name of the conference (about 7 years ago I think? Maybe a bit less?), both I and the person next to me immediately thought of the slang “body part” connection.

That’s not to say I’m taking a side in the debate itself. I tend to agree with Pinker’s view in the abstract, especially with the part where it makes academics seem silly to be preoccupied with this, and detracts from the serious work done e.g. on climate change. But I also think Pinker is just plain wrong that this word doesn’t have that connection, at least nowadays. Is this a good enough reason to make this kind of change? I don’t know.

Although it occurs to me that if I were ever in this position myself, probably the best thing to do would be to make the name change, but “hide” what the reason was, to avoid this debate that makes everyone look silly, and makes everyone angry at each other. Not always possible, obviously.

25. XtX Says:

It does seem that a significant amount of people (men and women) {are offended, made uncomfortable, think it detracts from the seriousness of the field} that changing away from NIPS is a reasonably correct/pragmatic decision.

But I think that is actually the sad part of this whole situation – that women currently do not feel empowered enough to not be affected by such a slang (yes, perhaps “the patriarchy” is to blame). And while it is progress that we are empowered enough to make our voices heard and demand this change, I would hope that as a society we could aspire to more.

Take the power away from the word, empower yourselves with it so that it cannot hurt: call out and challenge the perpetrators; ignore them completely; return the favor and joke about men’s nipples; “free the nipple”; organize a tiny little *Processing Neural Information Systems* afterparty.

In short, give ourselves equality instead of demanding it. Who bestows these magical equality dividends anyway? Certainly not some arbitrary board of trustees voting on 4 letter acronyms.

Perhaps we are just not there as a society yet, and maybe this is the geodesic path to achieving equality (perfect is the enemy of good). But imho it feels like the current path of gradient descent is settling toward yet another polarized, conflict-ridden battleground.

26. Boaz Barak Says:

The conference was not “forced” to do anything. The board of trustees decided that it would be a positive change if the acronym changed from NIPS to NeurIPS. They had reasons to do so including actual events at the conference rather than hypothetical associations, see http://tensorlab.cms.caltech.edu/users/anima/pubs/NIPS_Name_Debate.pdf

This is not something unprecedented and has been going on for many years. A perfectly fine name or acronym gets an unwanted associated in popular culture, and then the people that are in charge decide whether it’s worth it to change the name. Any such decision is up to the people involved, and involves weighing the pros and cons.

Given the fact that, like many other areas of computer science, woman are still highly under-represented in Machine Learning, I would tend to err on the side of trying to make the conference more welcoming. But regardless I don’t see the point in re-hashing this debate, certainly not in a forum that does not consist mainly of regular members of the machine learning community. (I personally am not one – my first papers in this conference were this year.)

27. SamP Says:

Scott, you seem to enjoy getting into trouble or in the midst of storm. Thanks for your courage. And thanks for listening to different views.

In a normal world, there would be always some folks trying to be funny by cracking silly jokes. Do all of them demean women? No. Can some women like those jokes? May be, yes. And some women may not find them funny. Is conference a proper place for this kind of silly antics? Probably, not. But there is no need to outrage over everything. One may get outraged even hearing things like “I do not like Indian food”, recently a prominent activist fired a tweetstorm (targeting white supremacy and colonial mentality) triggered by someone (a Trump-hater white man) saying this as his most controversial food opinion. Would someone violate the conference policies if he/she casually says something like this while having lunch? Probably not. Should we add this to conference policy violation? Don’t you think that now we are going a bit too far than needed?

28. Nipso Facto Says:

Men have nipples too, and women’s nipples evolved as organs of nursing, not sexual gratification.

Is there any support for saying that nipples did not evolve to provide gratification as part of their nursing function ? The “sexual” distinction is largely a social and psychological one so would have been specialized much later, but it stands to reason that nursing being pleasurable would serve for a positive selection as the resulting offsprings would be better fed. Are there other proposed explanations for the high sensitivity and enervation of the area even in males ?

29. PTT Says:

Scott, I’m going to call you out again on that thing about men being “thrown in prison for life” (referring to your post #2119). It’s not entirely off-topic in this thread about gender, power, politics, and language. In the past, you’d completely disavowed that comment — but that was hidden away in a comment thread; the original post remains unchanged. This appears to fall short of the high standard of intellectual honesty you’ve set for yourself, and invites accusations of the old motte and bailey trick. (This was prompted by your edit of Anonymous comment #17, indicating that the strikethrough option is fully functional on this blog.)

Boaz, this is not only about NIPS. This letter is related to the controversy on quantum supremacy. And the controversy on quantum supremacy is not only about quantum supremacy, but more. Recently, a guy (who is quite popular in science twitter) posted some motivational quote of Feynman, and then withdrew it saying that Feynman is not a proper role model given some of the silly things he said or did. Some of the activists who are outraged over NIPS or quantum supremacy, are also outraged over Feynman. And there is no end to it.

We do not want the world to go back to 1960s or 1850s. But we want a world where there would be space for making jokes (sometimes silly), harmless flirting, expressing controversial opinions and at the same time promoting beauty and joy of science, reaching out to diverse groups and friendliness.

31. Mateus Araújo Says:

I hope PNAS doesn’t change its name.

This is actually the first time I hear about the reason for changing the name. I always assumed that the name change was a marketing stunt to use the current popularity of Neural Networks (and deep learning) to promote the conference. Once, when I said to someone that the name was originally NIPS, he told me “yeah, but nowadays NIPS is forbidden to use”. I didn’t understand back then why he said that, and I thought it is because they want to promote the new name so strongly that they forbid NIPS.

Needless to say I have never heard of the sexual connotation behind “nips”. Like Pinker I find the reason for change utterly embarrassing. The fact that some juvenile sexual connotation within the American public exists is not a good reason for a name change in my view.

I do not deny the fact that some people have been offended by the word to a certain extent at some point in time. But I oppose the rationale for change on slightly different grounds than Pinker. My argument is this: the fact that someone has iterated some objection to something is generally not a sufficient cause to act against it. The reason is that every action–here the name change–has a price. In this case the price of time, effort, energy, discussion time, confusion by the name change, administrative effort, etc. My claim is that in face of the price people need to pay in order to change the name, the advantage in terms of “reducing some suffering of some people at some limited point in time” is not sufficient. To give a simplistic example, the effort in name changing could have gone instead to help lonely old people.

A related point is that what society actually decides to change or act upon then boils down to political power groups: while lonely old people do not have political power, some other groups have the power. Hence, in essence, these kind of “social awareness” changes favor groups that have power, which then ironically goes in opposite direction to the declared cause itself: helping the unprivileged.

33. Anil Says:

My name is Anil. It is pretty close to another word with sexual meaning. There are people that make fun of this name. Should I consider changing my name?

Suppose I am running a company, and some of my employees make fun of my name and create an uncomfortable, non-inclusive environment. Is the right response to this to consider changing my name?

34. Greg V Says:

The double entendre had never occurred to me either, but I also feel that the change was generally not “forced” but willing cooperation. Whether or not the change is “correct” (e.g., the sexist connotation can be empirically verified through experiments like Scott’s humorous suggestions involving market research on Cheese Nips), I think making this type of change does serve as an interesting and useful type of signal to the community. When it comes to even a borderline possibility of offense, the leadership and community are happy to take action. For someone who is actually malicious, this must give them some pause before publicly making demeaning statements.

Is it right for a community to send this type of signal, though? You could imagine a spectrum of signals ranging from removing confederate flags or swastikas from public spaces to covering piano legs. The left side of this spectrum seems obviously to send a useful signal that hopes to suppress malicious actors. The right side of the spectrum becomes counter-productive, actually introducing sexist ideas to an otherwise mundane situation and causing people to feel that they are constantly navigating a conceptual minefield that can arbitrarily blow up on anyone at anytime. As with many issues, there is probably a happy medium that is hard to define, and is shifting for each issue. Removing swastikas is correct. When Scott got caught in a minefield on the other side of the spectrum, that was also wrong, because it stifled honest expression about a sensitive topic, diminishing the possibility of future honest conversations. I don’t think the NeurIPS debate veers toward either side, but if it’s near the border for me, it could be farther to the left for others – hence, I support this costless signal, which may do some slight good.

35. Scott Says:

PTT #29: I re-disavow it.

36. gsalem Says:

IMHO, the whole story is a non-issue. The main thing is: did this change help lower harassment at this conference and similar ones (as it seems there’s)? did it contribute to increase women participation? I think the answer is no in both cases. And I truly hope I’m wrong.

37. q Says:

Lubos Motl comments on this issue:
https://motls.blogspot.com/2019/12/huge-machine-learning-conference.html

38. Scott Says:

Boaz Barak #26: I agree with you that “NIPS forced to change its name” was an incorrect framing for Pinker to have used. On the other hand, this also wasn’t some democratic or bottom-up initiative from the mass of NIPS attendees and authors. Thinking it over just now, perhaps an analogue would be political renamings of cities—for example, St. Petersburg to Petrograd to Leningrad (and then back to St. Petersburg), Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City, Bombay to Mumbai. I.e., there’s some name by which the populace organically knows a place (even if that itself was the result of some long-ago political decision). But then the current power-holders say, no, because it doesn’t fit with our current ideology, everyone now needs to remember to call it something else. I’m not making any general evaluative judgment here—such a “top-down renaming” might be either good or bad, depending on the specifics and the ideology.

39. JeanTate Says:

Hasn’t France been trying to do some version of “top down naming” for, like, centuries? With results almost exactly in line with what linguists have been saying for decades (or longer)?

Wailing and gnashing of teeth doth not changes in word usage make!

Haven’t we all better things to spend our limited time on Earth on?

40. Barbara Terhal Says:

I agree that renaming concepts in order to be politically correct may not be the most useful way to create equality for all of woman- and mankind, and so has to be done with moderation and reason of all involved parties. I am however surprised about the defensiveness concerning the term quantum supremacy. The main question whether or not we use ‘quantum supremacy’ is whether the community of QI researchers is indeed comfortable and happy with using it and the results here have been much more mixed as compared to other terminology (like NISQ, qubit etc.) right from the start. I expect the term to stay as a historical marker of the current era of uncertain quantum computing and I expect that it will have become an unnecessary tag once we have real quantum computers (meaning noise-resilient, large-scale etc). Happy holidays!

Western people consider immature puns harassment? I always thought harassment implies pestering a particular woman with unwelcome attention etc. But puerile jokes that may even not be directed at anyone in particular? These women need to grow a thicker skin.
This “woke” nonsense is really infecting Western culture. They even made a movie based on a shooter video game Doom with a female lead for God’s sake! You think the fact that the protagonist of the game is called Doomguy should’ve told them something but no… And shoving gay and lesbian characters everywhere, criticising the massively popular The Witcher 3 video game for not having black people in it (in freakin’ medieval Poland!) etc…
Scott Alexander blogged
https://slatestarcodex.com/2017/10/24/how-did-new-atheism-fail-so-miserably/
https://slatestarcodex.com/2019/10/30/new-atheism-the-godlessness-that-failed/
about the so called New Atheism being immensely popular in the English speaking world in the 2000s, and how it then crashed and burned spectacularly by the mid-2010s. I can’t wait to see the woke nonsense suffering the same fate sometime in the 2020s.

42. David Says:

Scott #38

I think this an unfair analogy. You are comparing the changing of the abbreviation of a conference that occurs for a week every year, with the changing of the name of a city which may have existed for hundreds of years. You can say that this is simply a change in magnitude and you may be right, but then you must change the magnitude of the reason for change accordingly. Instead you have changed Boaz’s “reasons to do so including actual events at the conference” to “the current power-holders say, no, because it doesn’t fit with our current ideology” which I think will be seen as a “bad reason” by many. Note that the phrasing of the latter very much does not give the impression that those “power-holders” are changing the name because they truly believe it is to the benefit of the city’s inhabitants, whereas Boaz indicates that this is the case for the NeurIPS name change and that the “power-holders” had good reason to believe this.

I will admit to not being well-versed in the history of name changes of cities, and so perhaps one of your examples does in fact more closely fit the NeurIPS case, but I do not think your general description reads this way.

I am aware of one case where a city changed its name, and the reason was to benefit the city. This was the case for Aarhus, which changed from Århus (though it was Aarhus before that), apparently to “strengthen the international profile of the city” according to wikipedia. I think I recall once hearing that this had something to do with it being easier to Google ‘Aarhus’ rather than ‘Århus’ :P. This is also probably not a perfect analogy in some ways, and I have probably not argued my case perfectly here. But really I just thought that your comment did not adequately engage with what Boaz posted, and instead it just seemed like you were trying to find some analogy where a name change would be perceived as negatively as possible, which would allow you to side-step his post.

From Boaz’s description of things the name change seems completely reasonable to me. Most objections seem to either be ignorant to the actual details, or say that this situation must be treated with its ramifications for other instances in mind. The latter has some merit, but it would seem that any ramifications of not changing the name are always ignored.

Raetihi #1 and #2
Well, the woke activists have no sympathy for the Japanese, because the Japanese make all these eeeeevil animes and visual novels with huge anime tiddies 😀

44. Magicarp Says:

Reposting the Frantics sketch from the previous discussion:

45. Anonymous Says:

I can’t wait to see the woke nonsense suffering the same fate sometime in the 2020s.

You won’t get that chance I’m afraid as whatever non-western country you come form will have probably disconnected you from the global Internet by then.
But hey runet is tons of fun and someone will surely introduce you to a social circle exchanging xeroxed SSC articles for overnight reading.

46. Paul Topping Says:

Back in the old days, someone making the nips to body part connection was thought to be uncouth and perhaps was chastised. Now, some want to shift that responsibility onto the innocent. I understand that they have society’s best interests at heart but this doesn’t scale well. It draws attention away from those making the bad jokes. Such a society is not the “nice” one they envision. Instead, it’s one in which everyone is guilty and all participate in a virtue-seeking death spiral.

47. Change Namer Says:

I think most of of us here agree that if the name was found offensive by a large number of people, making some people too uncomfortable to attend to the science, then changing it would be the sensible thing to do.

In the current case, in response to a campaign to change the name, the NIPS foundation sent out a poll to the community with questions like “Do you want the name changed” and “If so, which of these names should we change to”. A majority of men and women did not favor a name change. The issue was settled and it was announced that the name will not be changed. A second round of activism led to a large number of people starting to call the conference by a new name. In response to this, the board relented and changed the name. I think “forced” is pretty appropriate here.

I personally think that was the right decision and voted for it. But I do worry about the process. From what you hear on twitter and the discussion here, it would seem like the 56% women in the community that did not support the name change didn’t exist (40% against, 16% neutral, to be precise). And looking at some twitter threads, I can see why they are being silenced: there is no room for dissent or disagreement with our activist heroes. A different perspective being offered is “gaslighting”. Women who attempt to have a conversation are “the worst”. This is much like the tea party/NRA approach of purity tests. It may be effective but it misses the opportunity to convince some of the 56% women and 70% men who did not support the name change. If we don’t change hearts and minds, the name change is a hollow victory. This approach of “my way or I will use my social media powers to make you into a villian” silences the large majority of moderate voices. This is very much the opposite of inclusiveness, that these heroes claim to be fighting for. It empowers a vocal self-serving minority that doesn’t necessarily speak for everyone, but only for people in their bubble.

48. Dan Spielman Says:

I think one’s reaction to this depends on one’s linguistic community. The first time I heard the acronym “NIPS” I thought of the slang term for nipples. My wife had the same reaction when she saw the mug I brought home from the conference. And yes, we assumed women’s nipples because men’s are much less prominent.

Given the awkwardness of the name “Neural Information Processing Systems”, I had assumed that when the creators of the conference were choosing a name, the acronym was one of the arguments in favor of the name. Even if my assumption is wrong, the change of acronym is a clear improvement because it makes a lot of people more comfortable with the conference.

I just wish they could have changed the name entirely. If you say “Neural Information Processing Systems” 10 times quickly, I’m sure you’ll agree.

49. James Says:

The specific words a culture uses to label things are arbitrary, of course, sometimes being chosen differently by different cultures even within a single nation sharing a language. If a culture suddenly decides to use a different word to refer to something that it has hitherto referred to with a certain word, then that is the prerogative of the culture. And to argue against such a decision—as Pinker, a descriptive linguist, ought to know—is utterly fruitless, betraying a lack of understanding of how human language works. I therefore find this whole debate sinfully boring, a waste of time tantamount to bemoaning and fighting against the loss to outdatedness of the iPhone 2G; and the fact that so many intelligent people do not, and apparently do not have better things to be thinking about, is baffling.

50. Scott Says:

David #42: Do you really think the victorious Communists, who changed the names of St Petersburg, Saigon, etc., didn’t genuinely believe they were doing it for their subjects’ (or rather “comrades’”) own betterment? The people who successfully campaigned to rename NIPS have, to their credit, been completely open about their reasoning: they point to various incidents of attendees making or tolerating ribald puns, as “demonstrating the need” for the name change. In other words: they, the activists, function as a revolutionary vanguard who will better the morally deficient rabble, drag them up towards the activists’ higher plane of thinking and being, and they’ll start by making everyone change their words. They’ll do this whether the rabble, those adult children under the activists’ care, like it or not, whether they voted for it or they didn’t.

Now, it’s crucial to understand that, in describing the situation as it is, I don’t intend any negative moral judgment against the activists’ cause. Like, I’m someone who believes that there really are numerous cases where the “educated elite” is 100% right and the “deplorables” are tragically, catastrophically, forehead-bangingly wrong. In such cases (climate change, vaccinations, honoring international agreements, many aspects of immigration…), I share the temptation to use whatever levers are available to enlighten the masses, even if the masses can be expected to resist until they, too, are enlightened.

But the reality of this dynamic, and the fact that the masses understand it perfectly well, also means that the educated elites had better be damned careful in their choice of battles! I.e., they’d better pick only the ones

(a) that really matter, and

(b) where Truth and Science and Reason and Compassion themselves really do scream the rightness of the elites’ cause from the rooftops.

And alas, I think that the educated elites have not lived up to this standard, and the rabble knows it. And that’s a central reason why I’m absolutely terrified that Trump will win again in 2020, even though (in my estimation) he’s the worst president in American history and an existential threat to the civilized world.

51. r Says:

Scott, are you doing your Google search in incognito mode (say) so that Google is not using of its knowledge of Scott Aaronson’s tastes? I get 3 candies and the rest women in tight shirts. Or try DuckDuckGo. I got 100% women in that ‘nips’ image search.

52. Magicarp Says:

Okay, that didn’t work. (How did Shecky R. embed that Carlin video?) Plain URL:

https://youtu.be/-a-GXqivhW0?t=269

53. Boaz Barak Says:

Again, I think such a debate if it makes sense at all only makes sense in a blog where most people are ML researchers, so I’m not sure more comments are fruitful. However I did want to clarify that:

1) I think in this particular case there were good empirical reasons to make a relatively minor change. This doesn’t mean such changes are always warranted no matter the circumstances. Each such proposal should be debated based on the circumstances and by the people that will be affected.

2) It is absolutely legitimate to have a different opinion on the name change, and that doesn’t mean that someone holding it is “anti women” in any way. I believe that even the people arguing for the name change would not consider it as more than just one small positive step among many that can be taken to make the conference and community more welcoming and inclusive.

54. John Black Says:

My impression as an outsider is that academia must be in serious trouble, and is indeed becoming a laughingstock, if such hyper-privileged and fragile people have nothing better to do than worry about things like this. This really doesn’t play way outside your bubble; don’t be surprised when Trump wins again and the reputation of academia continues to sink. It sounds like political activism is replacing intellectual achievement for many, and the whole enterprise risks falling into Soviet-style stagnation and mediocrity (and de-funding) if this continues.

55. Armin Says:

I just want to point out that there is an aspect to the argument given in comment #7 that I find quite disturbing.

The argument relies on equating “one doesn’t *avoid* the fact the cultural representations of women’s bodies are sexist” with denying the claim that “the society should not endorse the idea that the concept of nipples is sexist”. In other words, the argument relies on the assumption that the concept of nipples (and by implication, any puerile talk involving them) is ipso facto sexual, exactly the main point Pinker’s letter explicitly questioned.

In short, the argument “refutes” Pinker’s main point by denying it as a matter of assumption. It is is simply “you’re wrong” masquerading as a reasoned argument.

But what disturbed me is that by taking the side of frat bros and those who objectify women in sexualizing nipples from the outset, thereby taking this to be the societal norm instead of that of a fraction of men, the author paints all men by the same brush.

I don’t think this is an accident. In fact, I suspect that those who are most outraged by this and similar affairs secretly (or perhaps not so secretly) think that every man is a closet rapist or at least closet sexual harasser.

From my perspective, this is the elephant in the room.

I think it is important, especially for feminists themselves, to call out misandrists posing as feminists and purporting to speak on their behalf because they do far more damage to worthy goals of the women’s rights movement (not to speak of those of progressive liberals in general) than misogynists and MRG’s ever could. Sadly, so far we are doing a lousy job of it, thereby giving the other side plenty of ammunition to paint us with the same brush.

56. James Says:

Scott #50. If you really think the rabble care, or are even aware of, what goes on linguistically in the ML community, then you’re deluded. So the criterion of whether this is a wise battle for the ML elites to get into or not is irrelevant. Whether they get into it or not, the decision will have practically zero effect on the psychology of the rabble. The rabble, basically by definition, are busy watching Nascar and (actual but no more meaningful) sports, drinking too much beer and taking too many drugs, committing petty crimes and watching uninspired sitcoms, commenting on trashy YouTube videos and playing endless video games, and doing a whole lot of other nonsense that will lead to a painful existence and premature death. They’re most certainly not keeping up to date on ML—let alone its politics. I’d bet my life on that.

57. Scott Says:

James #56: No, I did not mean that coal miners in Appalachia literally care about the name of a machine learning conference. I was using the “elites vs. rabble” dynamic within our tiny little bubble as a convenient microcosm for what’s been playing out across the US and around the world.

58. Anima Anandkumar Says:

Scott Aaronson I am extremely disappointed with you bringing in Steven Pinker! I was the one who brought attention to this issue. You didn’t even bother to credit me for this. Steven Pinker got me banned from Twitter and has attacked the movement. Shameful! Your wife Dana Moshkovitz Aaronson has undergone terrible sexual harassment (we share a strange bond having been harassed by the same predator), yet you are clueless about how harassment and toxic behavior thrives in our communities. I am truly disappointed. This year
Celeste Kidd got a standing ovation after sharing her #MeToo experience and guiding the men to be allies. Amazing change from TITS parties and misogynistic rappers There is a ton of resources available if you want to truly understand what #protestNIPS was about: http://tensorlab.cms.caltech.edu/users/anima/pubs/NIPS_Name_Debate.pdf presented at #NeurIPS workshop last year. Slides: http://tensorlab.cms.caltech.edu/users/anima/slides/CRACT-2018.pdf

59. Scott Says:

Anima #58:

1) Pinker is one of the most celebrated humanist intellectuals on this earth. If he wanted to use my blog to explain why quantum computing is a farce while homeopathy is the real deal, I’d judge that of sufficient interest to my readership to let him make his case. And if, having done vastly more than either you or me to show people the universality of human nature and human rights across races and sexes, he’s still a “horrible racist and sexist person” (as you just described him on my Facebook wall)—then I aspire to be one too.

2) If you don’t mind sharing, I would love to know what specific tweets or incidents led to your banning from Twitter. Getting Twitter to ban you doesn’t sound all that easy to me, so “congrats”! 😀

3) I left you out of my post as a courtesy. Based on hard-won experience, I try to avoid writing about specific people who are not public figures if I don’t have their knowledge or cooperation. Should you wish, though, I’m happy to acknowledge you right now for having spearheaded the NIPS renaming campaign (and I can also edit the main post).

4) Dana, who’s here now, says she’d prefer that you not bring her into this. Thanks!

5) In any case, we’re not talking about sexual harassment, which every sane person wishes to see eradicated from the earth. We’re talking about an acronym that inspired some juvenile puns. Whether that has any connection to sexual harassment is exactly one of the main questions at issue here; it can’t be assumed without argument.

6) While you might find this mindblowing, I’ve often been pushed off the fence, into blogging about causes that I feel strongly about—causes like freedom of thought, Enlightenment liberalism, climate change mitigation, or the need for progressives to abandon woke virtue signaling and form a broad coalition that will actually defeat Trump—because of my sense of social responsibility. I might disagree with you on many issues, but not on the moral burden that often falls on scientists to speak their consciences rather than just burying themselves in their research.

Glad to discuss further, by email or blog or Facebook or however else you like. Happy holidays!

60. Anima Anandkumar Says:

Scott, I am terribly disappointed that you proceeded to unfriend me on Facebook for having an opinion. You are shutting down the very voices that have been affected by terrible toxic environment in our scientific communities. How do you claim to be enlightened and open-minded? I brought up your brave wife Dana Moshkovitz to demonstrate that there are women who have been severely affected by sexism in our communities. Sexual harassment has its roots in misogyny. It starts with juvenile jokes around “nips”. How are you so clueless about this? Pinker unleashed trolls on to me and other women spearheading the movement. I even got gun threats and was afraid of my life. When I wrote this you proceeded to unfriend me. I am truly disappointed. I will not respond anymore. You can see more discussion on Twitter: https://twitter.com/AnimaAnandkumar/status/1209671652029517825?s=20

61. Azure Says:

I don’t agree with Pinker. But I disagree with the person trying to censure him for disagreeing and claiming he did harm in doing so way more. There’s a claim I hear pop up that only liberals think it’s okay to debate and disagree with anything.

Well, I’m a liberal and I plan to liberal it up. Sure, I might be the kind of liberal who ultimately wants to deconstruct current notions of property, gender, and family, but the more radical your agenda the more you should (instrumentally) champion freedom of expression and dissent just as a matter of self-preservation and ability to bring your agenda to the table, the less willing you should be to accept a norm that it’s okay to paint disagreement as ‘bad’, and the sooner the left gets over this nonsense the better.

(My first association with the acronym was ‘???? Instructions Per Second’.)

62. T Says:

I believe that the NIPS/NeurIPS name change campaign did a lot to raise awareness of sexual harassment issues in the community and this has resulted in real change. I think this should be acknowledged.

However, I don’t think that the name change itself has made any difference. If the name had been changed for a completely different reason (hypothetically, let’s say islamic state had somehow taken the acronym NIPS), then nothing would have changed. Elon Musk would not somehow become a better human being because he was deprived of the NIPS/TITS joke.

There are other conferences (e.g., ICML, ACL, CVPR, AAAI) whose attendees heavily overlap with NIPS/NeurIPS and have names that, as far as I know, have no sexual connotation. Were they somehow a better environment for women than NIPS was? I doubt it.

I think the name change debate did real harm though. It was divisive and it made the whole community look silly. Outside the bubble this only confirms the views of those who view academica as controlled by the PC police who are taking over everything.

Please let’s not repeat this fiasco.

63. hi Says:

I’ve also participated and read many NIPS papers, never in my mind did anything sexual come to mind.

Nips has multiple definitions, as Pinker mentions. Just for fun, I just played word association with the word “Nips”, and the first thing that came to mind were Cheese Nips. Maybe we should boycott Kraft until they change their cheese cracker brand?

64. Barak A. Pearlmutter Says:

I attended NeurIPS (NIPS at the time) every year from its start until the early 2000s, helping out in various capacities: reviewing, program committee, organized a bunch of workshops, workshop co-chair for a couple years, “poster spotlight nazi”, etc. (The S is not for Symposium, by the way; it’s the Neural Information Processing *Systems* Conference.)

Unfortunately, people have been trying to turn the name change into a controversy. The primary difficulty in changing the name was not achieving broad consensus that the old name NIPS should be changed; it was what to change it to.

The big reason it needed to be changed was that if you used a search engine to look for “nips” you’d get all kinds of non-technical materials, and platforms like Twitter and such would often red-flag text containing the word “nips” or even “NIPS”, doing things like hiding posts behind a “may contain offensive material” guard or even censoring them. This wasn’t an issue in 1990, but became a serious problem a decade or two later.

This is so obvious and indisputable that people didn’t spend time discussing it; instead it was more fun to make jokes and pretend to be oblivious (“the double entendre had never occurred to me either,” giggle giggle), or “offended” about people who were actually being put off by the name NIPS, or whatever. (I did have my own joke: that my suggested rename to Neural Information Processing and Learning Systems was being discarded without due consideration. NIPLS, get it? Hilarious, right?)

65. Vanessa Kosoy Says:

Personally, when I first heard the name NIPS was changed because it is “offensive” I was completely at a loss to the reason. Googling revealed that it was a racial slur but the usage seems very obscure by now. I admit I am not an native English speaker but my English is quite good and NIPS is an international conference after all. Would they change the name if it was same level of offensiveness in *any* language? Anyway, even after figuring out the reason it seemed rather overblown. Personally I do not feel “unsafe” going to a conference called NIPS. But, my experience might be not representative! If these name changes followed something resembling a democratic process they would have been understandable, I think. As it is, I have the suspicion American political correctness just always wins by default, whether anyone is actually offended or not.

Anonymous #45
This is a possibility, but given how incompetent the agencies tasked with implementing “sovereign internet” appear to be, chances are nothing really will come out of this. Except for sucking money out of the state budget, that is.

67. Lor Pachter Says:

Scott: your comment that “Indeed, I enjoyed those candies as a kid” reminded me that as a kid growing up in South Africa I would purchase “nigger balls” at the school tuck shop. At the time I didn’t think the naming of those black licorice balls had anything to do with racism- there were so few blacks I interacted with (there were only 2 sons of ambassadors at my school out of more than a thousand boys) that I was not even aware that the N word was a slur. Yet, despite my ignorance at the time, it was. And the name change of those candies that ensued after the collapse of apartheid does not represent a capitulation to “prudish censoriousness, snowflake sensibility, and virtue signaling”.

68. Scott Says:

Lor [sic] Pachter #67: I’m going to venture that, even as a child, in the 1980s, I would’ve known not to buy a candy called “[n-word] balls.” Was it guilt over the racism you were once complicit in that led, in part, to your present stances?

In any case, the very fact that you could see a candy that literally had the n-word in its name as analogous to a candy whose name reminds some people, although not others, of the innocent human nipple, is indicative of the enormity of the chasm here, one that I unfortunately don’t know how to bridge.

Re the comments by “Anima Anandkumar”, I think that anyone who starts a discussion by “I am very disappointed by you” and the likes (including the original response to Pinker quoted as writing “[you] just [made] the world a bleaker place for everyone”)–something that is all too common in today’s “woke” culture–should simply be ignored (or at most confronted with counter arguments for public reasons only).

There is no room in civilized, rational discussions for shaming your debater, or preaching to them. This is a form of bullying and not a way to engage in any meaningful discourse. Indeed, when confronted by rational arguments both accusers have now stopped any further discourse, demonstrating that their initial motivation was never a honest discussion in the first place.

70. Scott Says:

Barak Pearlmutter #64: That’s the first argument I’ve heard for renaming NIPS that totally and completely made sense to me! Imagine if it had been framed that way from the very beginning (“we’re having this problem with our Google search results, so let’s collectively figure out the best way to solve that problem”), as opposed to the way Anima Anandkumar has framed it (“the misogynist pigs who pervade our field, those who dared to smile at a juvenile pun, need to be shamed and taught a lesson”). Might the original vote have gone differently? Would there have been any pushback at all?

Anyway, Merry Christmas and long live NeurIPS!

71. Scott Says:

Anima Anandkumar #60: Again, I unfriended you on Facebook as a courtesy to you. I don’t know you in real life. After you attacked me, even bringing my wife into it, and I responded with a friendly (under the circumstances) invitation to dialogue, you posted an angry rant on Facebook about how you no longer wanted to engage with my “toxicity” (immediately followed, oddly enough, by a sequence of tweets denouncing me). What’s a decent, reasonable person to conclude in such a case but “OK then, I guess this person doesn’t want to be my friend”? 🙂

Ironically, this episode (which also found you denouncing Steven Pinker, on my Facebook wall, as a “horrible racist and sexist”) has made me feel more at peace. Often, when someone who I’d respected gets angry about something I wrote or said, I feel tremendous guilt, constantly asking myself: “how could I have avoided this, while still not betraying my conscience”? Here, though, you’ve kindly spared me from having to ask that. You’ve practically announced to the world that, at least on these issues, you perceive not the slightest distinction between disagreement and assault.

72. Barak A. Pearlmutter Says:

Scott #70: Thanks. Yes, if I’d been running PR that’s how I’d have framed it.

I think #metoo issues are too serious to be seen as riding coat-tails on a renaming, or to need to. Women should be safe at all professional venues, period. I do know some non-public NeurIPS horror stories, and they didn’t have anything to do with the old name; they had to do with men being assholes unable to keep their hands to themselves or to take a REPEATED AND VERY CLEAR NO for an answer.

Regarding the vote, it was really a poll to get a sense of the community. Those sorts of polls shouldn’t be viewed as binding. (I could say the same about Brexit!) Whenever an organization rebrands, there is going to be resistance and heated discussion. Ultimately it is the board’s job to maintain the reputation and health of the conference, in all the various senses of these words. Whether and how to rebrand is the sort of high-level decision they needed to face, and hiding behind an informal poll wasn’t really an option. They couldn’t realistically rename twice though, so they had to get the new name right, and that necessarily involves delay. It was fascinating the way a good new name sort of emerged holistically.

73. Raetihi Says:

Barak A. Pearlmutter #64: “The big reason it needed to be changed was that if you used a search engine to look for “nips” you’d get all kinds of non-technical materials, and platforms like Twitter and such would often red-flag text containing the word “nips” or even “NIPS”, doing things like hiding posts behind a “may contain offensive material” guard or even censoring them.”

Scott #70: “That’s the first argument I’ve heard for renaming NIPS that totally and completely made sense to me!”

The organisers are of course free to rename their conference for any real or imagined reason. But I don’t understand *this* argument at all. The search engine issue might have existed long ago for a few years, but today all engines yield the desired results if one simply adds a suitable search term; e.g., “nips conference” instead of just “nips”. Every Google user knows what to do if “nips” returns too much candy or too many breasts.

If platforms like Twitter censor certain words regardless of the context, 1.) who cares?, 2.) their algorithms will probably soon learn to do better, 3.) in particular if someone points out the problem to the platform technicians. To rename a conference just because some social media platform is temporarily too dumb to recognise the context of its name does not seem like a sustainable strategy to me.

If, say, Twitter would tomorrow red-flag every mention of “Black Holes 2020” as a racist misogynist slur, should we immediately rename this (fictitious) conference just to appease our new social media overlords? Or just laugh about the programmers’ incompetence?

74. Scott Says:

Raetihi #73: I don’t say that NIPS needed to change its name for search engine reasons. I merely say that it seems reasonable, although I have no strong feelings and probably wouldn’t take any time to think about it unless I were a NIPS regular or organizer. By contrast, the Anima-style argument for renaming seems calculated to provoke a reaction, not just in the NIPS/NeurIPS community but in neighboring communities, from everyone who it implicitly accuses of aiding and abetting misogyny.

Incidentally, I just did a Google image search to confirm that, indeed, the physics meaning of “black hole” has decisively triumphed! 🙂

75. Barak A. Pearlmutter Says:

Raetihi #73: You’re basically advocating letting the perfect (that day when search engines all understand that when *I* type nips I mean the conference, and twitter understands the prose and conversation and true meanings, and packet-inspecting firewalls at high schools and libraries don’t false-positive on nips.cc or searches for “nips” because they’re telepathic or something) be the enemy of the good (just getting around the problem right now and getting on with our lives.)

I personally had responses to tweets censored or put behind “may contain offensive language” barriers apparently due to the string “nips”. Not very long ago. But sure, once all these systems are AI-complete and pass the Turing Test, things like that won’t happen. Except we won’t really need scientific conferences anymore, since the computers will be doing all the research anyway, and I’m sure they’ll find a more efficient way to exchange information.

76. JeanTate Says:

So, linguists’ research shows that a word, in any language, can change its meaning over time. And that the reasons for such changes, and how common a word is, are many.

Do things like blogs, editorials on the internet, Twitter, etc affect word meanings and usage in English, in the 21st century? No doubt a topic for more than one new linguistics PhD.

Wail all you want, gnash your teeth, pull your hair out … but do remember that wise king, Canute.

77. Barak A. Pearlmutter Says:

Scott #74: Regarding your “Google image search to confirm that, indeed, the physics meaning of “black hole” has decisively triumphed”, to bring this around full circle, if you extend that and do a Google image search for “black hole of calcutta” you’ll get pictures of a NeurIPS 2019 poster session.

78. David Karger Says:

This discussion is similar to discussions I’ve seen on my lab’s mailing list that I have come to consider in-themselves harmful to women and other minorities in our community.

I will assume that the participants in this discussion are open minded, and are offering evidence for their current position while recognizing that it might be refuted. However, far too many of the posts instead convey “this is fact, and anyone who disagrees with it is simply wrong (and obviously intellectually inferior since they cannot see that). This starts right at the beginning, with Pinker’s claim: “To state what should be obvious: nip is not a sexual word. As Chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, I can support this claim.” What is the takeaway here? That any woman who finds that the name NIPS makes here feel excluded is mistaken, overly sensitive, not scientific. And that this is the opinion of an incredibly influential (Chair of the usage panel) individual—so that women had better not embarrass herself or lower her reputation for future hiring by sharing her feelings where this person might hear!

Going on, #9 suggests that sharing one’s discomfort with the name is bullying/shaming that prevents people from being open about their opinions. The irony: any woman uncomfortable with NIPS now can’t share her feeling with anyone, since she might be accidentally be talking to #9. #13 talks about “policing language” as if this minority community has the power to force people to do things instead of the being victims of the community forcing them to put up with things, and tells people to “grow a spine”, implying the feeling demoralized when people in your community insult you is a sign of weakness (feminine) instead of a normal human reaction. #14 explains that the women he knows are strong, implying again that any woman who feels hurt by this is a weakling. #27 says “there is no need for outrage”—not “I wouldn’t mind myself” but “anyone who is outraged is clearly an irrational individual”. #36 “the whole thing is a non issue”—so anyone raising it is too fragile. #41 “these women need to grow a thicker skin”—there’s nothing wrong with me, it’s just that *you* are weaklings.

Given that this is a science blog, it is remarkable how many of the comments share their own experience (anecdotes) as if this provides *any* evidence on the issue, in contrast to citing the polls of the community (actual data) that show that many participants in the community consider this a significant issue.

I recognize that these discussions need to happen, for educational purposes at least. But if they’re going to happen, I think they should center on what is most important: that a significant fraction of the community felt hurt. Getting into the exact numbers would again be sidetracking from that key issue, but it was clearly more than a few crackpots. I feel this really needs to be the first part of any post, whether you’re going to ultimately agree or disagree with the outcome. Almost *none* of the comments on the negative side acknowledge this reality. Which I think sends a message to this hurt minority that nobody particularly cares about them.

Finally, so far as I can tell, the only woman who has actually participated in this conversation is Anima, who clearly has an exceptional willingness to engage on it. What kind of signal might this give us about how welcoming this type of discussion is to women?

79. BoostedWeakLearner Says:

There wasn’t much of a need to revisit this debate, Pinker or no. But here’s my take, including an obscure yet important event in NIPS’ recent history which puts much of this in context.

First, there are many mischaracterisations in this thread and in particular by one researcher. The high-profile jokes about TITS can be partially traced back to the TITS.ai event which was organized by Riva Melissa-Tez and others.

“If you’re particularly politically correct and wincing at the name ‘TITS’, recall that ‘NIPS’ is not much better. In fact, one could say you can’t have NIPS without TITS. If you’re worried that the name TITS reinforces the male stereotype in the tech community, take comfort in knowing that this event is organized by a team of 70% females, and the fact that both sexes have TITS. We believe revolutions start with humor, laughter and community.” To be clear she was lampooning the acronym but says nothing about its causing harm. However I’d love for her to have the last word on the “TITS” issue.

Elon Musk’s comment was in reference to this. And frankly he wasn’t speaking at an official NIPS event and he is prone to absurd outbursts at the best of time anyway (Thai cave rescue anyone?). Given all the utter nonsense he spouts about AI, why do we care about what he says about this issue?

The community was polled and there was a pretty underwhelming yet conclusive response: keep the original name. The paper that Anima linked has a pretty tortured interpretation of the statistics. Frankly that section in the paper has no credibility. The name change was absolutely forced. This isn’t a bad thing, but we cannot pretend that it was in any way democratic or supported by anything approaching a majority of the community. This has caused rifts and created animosity and the new name has been abused in as purile a manner as the old one just with a nudge and a wink. Yet those who applied that pressure can pat themselves on the back for a job well done. A real “Mission Accomplished” moment.

************************

Much more damning than the conference name was an incident which occurred at the 2015 Deep RL workshop. A postdoc in Schmidthuber’s lab decided it would be a good idea to show the uncensored “Lena” image as an example. This rightfully caused outrage and I believe both Joelle and Nando spoke up at the event. However, it was met by deafening silence and inaction by the workshop organizers. A letter on behalf of some of the attendees of the workshop was sent to the WS organisers and found its way to the entire NIPS committee, the WiML leadership and many other prominent members of the community.

The first order of business was to ensure the video of the talk wasn’t released. What followed was further cover-up, whitewashing and justification. It was explicitly decided that no mention of this would ever be made public. This was a course of action agreed to by a who’s-who of the ML community, male and female. Verbatim, this is the comment which ended the discussion:

“And then, indeed, let us get back to our real work :-)”

It was assured that a code of conduct would be instituted (at that point standard in every other major CS conference). This didn’t come into force until 2018.

NIPS/NeurIPS and the ML community has major issues. The name is orthogonal to this. As someone who has been involved in this conversation since the mid 2010’s, in particular Anima’s (and others) decision to frame everything from genuine academic disagreement, to receiving bad ICLR reviews (See e.g. this thread: https://twitter.com/AnimaAnandkumar/status/1191776590440620034 ) in terms of sexism and lack of diversity has hurt the cause and has even caused young female researchers to distance themselves from speaking out for fear of being tarred by the same brush.

Now, the naming issue is settled, but everyone who decided that displaying porn at a high-profile workshop shouldn’t be addressed publicly is still calling the shots. Researchers with credible allegations of assault and abuse against them still land high-profile faculty positions (again decided on by a similar group of people).

For positive change to happen we need focus and inclusion. What was brilliant about Celeste Kidd’s talk was the precision of the language and the inclusiveness of the message. This empowers men and women to be part of the conversation. Blanket accusations of discrimination and brashly proclaiming victory in inconsequential matters do the opposite.

80. Observer Says:

@ Scott #70:

“That’s the first argument I’ve heard for renaming NIPS that totally and completely made sense to me! Imagine if it had been framed that way from the very beginning (“we’re having this problem with our Google search results, so let’s collectively figure out the best way to solve that problem”), as opposed to the way Anima Anandkumar has framed it (“the misogynist pigs who pervade our field, those who dared to smile at a juvenile pun, need to be shamed and taught a lesson”). Might the original vote have gone differently? Would there have been any pushback at all?”

But that *is* precisely the kind of argument that was made from the beginning, including by Anima (author of this position paper: http://tensorlab.cms.caltech.edu/users/anima/pubs/NIPS_Name_Debate.pdf):

“online searches for the acronym lead to not-safe-for-work content, the Twitter hashtag #nips is devoted to pornography, and a simple replacement of the nips.cc conference website with nips.com sends viewers to a pornography website”

81. Dav Says:

David Karger, you seem to share the Marxist belief that a group is oppressed and the other is oppressor and it is fair to take the side of the oppressed or weak or minority. Given diverse mentalities, it is not surprising that some people would not find NIPS jokes funny and some people would find quantum supremacy offensive. But don’t you think it is offensive and suffocating when anyone who are in disagreement are seen as “bullies/not allies/misogynist/toxic racist”. And these are actual words used, not imaginary.

82. Scott Says:

David Karger #77: Of the various hostile reactions that Pinker and I got, yours is the only one that really depressed me, because it came from someone who I’d considered a friend.

To start with the obvious (or am I no longer allowed to use that word?): your claim that Anima was the only female commenter here is false. There might be others who I missed (or whose gender I don’t know), but Vanessa Kosoy #65 commented largely in support of Pinker’s position. That makes the female tally so far here “1 for, 1 against.” Does Vanessa’s opinion not count? Did you somehow miss her, while carefully combing through every comment to collect quotes?

Furthermore, while it’s unfortunate that the readership of math/CS/physics blogs tends to skew ~90% male, the reality is that comment threads on social issues, including this one, have been no more male than comment threads on quantum computing or anything else—on this blog or any other blogs with a similar audience. Including even the ones written by scientists who are completely doctrinaire, and who’ll dutifully denounce anyone who Twitter tells them to denounce. If so, though, then the causal story where allowing open dialogue about these issues, banning commenters only for personal attacks and the like (rather than for defending the wrong opinion)—the story where that’s what drives women away from STEM just doesn’t work. The defendants are innocent of the crime.

To come finally to the heart of the matter. It flabbergasts me how so many intelligent people can be minutely sensitive to any message that rhymes with something that reminds their friend of a friend of something that hints “women and minorities aren’t welcome here”—even while they’re willfully oblivious to messages that blare, at a hundred times the decibel level: “nerdy, Aspbergery males are not welcome, neither here nor anywhere else on earth.” Do you really think for a second that most of the guys on the other side of this issue haven’t struggled against the latter message for most of their lives? Do you think that’s not what motivates them here?

And lastly, do you not see how someone could get the “you’re not welcome” signals from your own comment? Following Anima, you seem to allow virtually no conceptual space for any possible counterargument that isn’t ipso facto misogynist, and therefore monstrous. (And this isn’t reciprocated: I’ve been perfectly willing to acknowledge people of goodwill on both sides of this debate, just like with the ‘quantum supremacy’ debate.) All the fears that you attribute to one side are fears that the other side now negotiates on a daily basis: “if I answer truthfully—saying, eg, that I’d never even heard the word ‘nip’ in a sexual context before this came up—will it prevent me from ever getting a job? Will all the field’s insiders ridicule and denounce me?”

I’m certainly not counting on it, but since it’s the time for resolutions: may the 2020s be an era of intellectual freedom, compassion, and understanding for all people regardless of background.

83. Yisong Yue Says:

Hi Scott & Commenters,

I am an insider of the machine learning community, and have been regularly attending machine learning conferences since since 2007. First off, I broadly agree with Barak’s comments in #64, #70, #75. He said it better than I could’ve myself! I’ll just add some follow-up perspectives. Please keep in mind these are my personal views and not necessarily representative of the entire ML community (which is now quite diverse).

**On common meanings of NIPS**
Re: Scott #23, echoing Sam #7 & R #21, did you try a Google *IMAGE* Search? Try this one:
https://tinyurl.com/rs3x7lx
There were many factors that led me to support a name change, but I do remember the Google image search being one of the final ones that tipped it for me.

**On the deliberative process of the name change**
There was substantial discussion leading up to its actual change. As Barak mentioned in comments #64, #70, there was broad consensus (or at the very least indifference) that the name needed to change. Since one can’t really change the name twice, the deliberation took a long time. Polls were sent out to the machine learning community. Many options were considered and ultimately rejected in favor of NeurIPS. I am not a member of the NeurIPS board, so I was not privy to all the deliberations. But I have confidence in the board’s decision making, and felt like I was given an avenue to provide my opinion.

**On the PR value of the name change**
As Barak #64 alludes to, there is substantial PR value to the name change. The influx of new attendees and corporate interest led to an increase in problematic behaviors that were clearly sexual in nature. I would personally put the change-point at 2014, but of course it was a continuous transformation. In 2015, some group brought in t-shirts that said “My NIPS are NP-Hard.” In my view, the optics of the conference name were just awful by that point, and we needed to set an example that this kind of “bro culture” is antithetical to the collegial culture we wished the machine learning community to be. This type of symbolism, of course, typically matters much more to people from marginalized communities, whom the ML leadership (broadly construed to include myself) wanted to be more inclusive towards.

**On other social aspects of the ML community**
As is evident from this blog post, the name of the flagship ML conference is a highly visible thing. So for the PR reasons stated above, I believe the name change was the right thing to do. Of course, just changing the name is not sufficient. There is a multi-faceted effort to encourage collegial behavior, including a new Diversity & Inclusion Chair position, substantially increased financial support to help members from marginalized communities attend NeurIPS, official codes of conduct broadcasted to all attendees, etc. Those stuff matter just as much (or more so) than the name change, but symbols do matter.

**On issues of political correctness & virtue signaling**
I completely agree that completely falling in line with political correctness is highly problematic, as is virtue signaling. And a topic like the name change of NeurIPS is bound to come with it plenty of those behaviors, which seems to be a major focus of Pinker’s response. More on this below.

**On perception by the broader public**
This is where Pinker’s response has the most substance, and was enlightening for me. One can interpret Pinker’s response as representative of how many people from the broader public view the name change of NeurIPS (e.g., the whole “academia has lost its mind” spiel). So, to the extent that the ML community cares about communicating a coherent message to the broader public, it is good to understand how Pinker came to that conclusion. But, as I’ll discuss in the next point, I think Pinker’s response is overall pretty misguided.

**On necessarily sinning out of ignorance or malice**
I agree with Scott’s general point that it is fundamentally grating to be confronted with someone who concludes you must be sinning out of ignorance or malice (and hence you must not have a point at all). However, I cannot help but feel like Pinker’s response is sufficiently laden with ignorance to the point of being almost useless. First off, the optics are bad — he misnames Neural Information Processing Systems as Neural Information Processing Symposium.

Second off, if Pinker had taken even 10 seconds to perform a Google image search, I imagine he might think differently about the problematic nature of the word NIPS. More importantly, I doubt Pinker has spent enough time with the machine learning community to understand its social dynamics. His response demonstrates a lack of understanding of the connection between the symbolism of the name change with the broader inclusion efforts by the ML leadership. Pinker just focuses on his perceptions of what is sexual or not, coupled with critiques on virtue signaling and political correctness. Those are all valid points, but are off-the-mark and not useful (in isolation) for discussing the broader contexts of the name change.

Third off, Pinker writes his response with such certainty. His (very confident) conclusion of who has done harm to whom honestly reeks of ignorance and being out of touch with the ML community.

**On the role of this Blog**
I totally get that purpose of this blog is to channel the musings of one Scott Aaronson. However, to the extent that one wishes to foster a discussion the NeurIPS name change with full context from the ML community, then, like Boaz #26, #53, I urge you to invite more people from ML to contribute commentary, rather than giving the podium completely to an outsider like Pinker.

**On the vitriol of social media**
It is unfortunate that social media often seems dominated by vitriol and substantial (fundamentally grating) challenges in finding intellectual common ground, which was part of the impetus for posting Pinker’s response. And, of course, any discussion about symbols is bound to become emotionally charged (which is what people mostly see on twitter). But underneath all that emotion has been serious discourse. The people doing said discourse often aren’t so vocal about it on social media.

**On next steps for the ML community**
Clearly, there has been a misunderstanding. The current focus of the ML community has been to properly engage with the huge influx of interest from the tech industry, and set cultural norms for collegial behavior. I’ve been very happy with the outcomes so far, and I find NeurIPS to be more inclusive every year. The people that Pinker is likely referencing in his “academia has lost its mind” spiel aren’t even on our radar, although perhaps they should be now. If I may be a bit blunt and somewhat arrogant, ML and AI have leverage right now, and it’s a great opportunity for us to push for cultural norms that we think are inclusionary and promotes long-term growth and productivity.

**Conclusion**
Sorry if this post was way too long. These are complex topics that have been weighing on me for a while. I

84. Anonymous Says:

> To state what should be obvious: nip is not a sexual word. As Chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, I can support this claim.

(I’m going to assume Pinker means “nip does not mean nipple” here and avoid, for now, the debate about whether nipples are sexual.)

First: I don’t think this is an actual argument! Pinker just states that his assertion is “obvious,” then cites his position on the usage panel of a dictionary as justification. It’s not just an appeal to authority, it’s an appeal to his own authority that, to me at least, comes off as an attempt to pre-emptively discredit anyone who disagrees with him.

Now, I would completely understand this kind of “argument” if his assertion were truly “obvious,” and if anyone who disagreed were either a) arguing in bad faith or b) utterly unqualified to comment on the issue. One mustn’t engage with trolls, after all! But it’s not obvious, and those who disagree aren’t necessarily trolls.

For example, would the Oxford English Dictionary be considered a troll? Its sixth entry for “nip” states: “A nipple. Usually in plural.” (I’m unsure how to link as it’s subscription-only, but anyone with access can check for themselves.) And according to Princeton’s library, the OED is “[c]onsidered the most authoritative and comprehensive English language dictionary in the world.”

Additionally, I’ve done some cursory research on the Internet that indicates that the American Heritage Dictionary favors a prescriptivist perspective on language, and is in fact distinguished by a Usage Panel of writers and editors who vote on the inclusion or proper usage of words. That’s a philosophy with its own merits, and as Chair of said Panel it makes sense that Pinker would subscribe to that philosophy, but for him to peremptorily dismiss those who associate “nip” with “nipple” seems argumentatively fallacious to me. Pinker should know that even if he and his peers deem this usage of “nip(s)” incorrect, it could very well mean “nipples” in common, colloquial parlance.

Regardless, I think I’ve made my point: “nip” does in fact mean “nipple” to some people, and to assert that a) “I personally don’t associate nip with nipple, so nip does not mean nipple” or b) “those who do make that association are adolescent and therefore can be discounted” is to fail to engage fully with the debate at hand. (Note too that those who made women uncomfortable with “nips” allusions at the conference surely fall into the category of “those who do make that association.”)

Moreover, those who make said “nip”-“nipple” association aren’t necessarily juvenile. They’ve likely grown up in an (Internet-driven) culture where “nip” does in fact immediately bring to mind “nipple(s)” and simply can’t dispel that association in their minds. You could be the most prude, staid, cerebral, scholarly, conservative individual in the world and still think of nipples when you hear “nip.” You could scrupulously avoid using “nip” or “nipple” in your entire life, preferring “teat” or perhaps even “mammary gland protuberance,” and still think of nipples when you hear “nip.” What’s more, the slang term “nips” generally refers to female breasts in a sexual context, even if “nipples” are not inherently sexual. That’s just linguistic reality, not a “snowflake” attempt to decry everything as sexist.

I myself came of age in this culture and I, along with most of my friends, think of nipples when we hear “nip.” (I’m in my late 20s, for what it’s worth.) In fact, I’d find it more surprising if someone my age didn’t associate “nips” with “nipples.” My experience might be anecdotal, but it attests to the existence of this association, whereas others’ claims that they don’t associate “nips” with “nipples” can’t prove the nonexistence of that association in other social circles.

You also don’t have to be a “social justice warrior” to be aware of, uncomfortable with, or annoyed by “nips”-“nipple” association. If a conference were named “BUTT,” I imagine many people would be unhappy. No one wants a serious conference to have a name like that, irrespective of gender, political leanings, or maturity level. Discomfort or annoyance with such a name need not be motivated by a desire to “protect delicate female sensibilities,” as Pinker alleges. No-nonsense individuals with no patience to spare on adolescent japes might reasonably wish to preclude the inevitable snickering of their less-mature peers, particularly if those quips are likely to be sexual in content.

In summary: acknowledging that “nips” brings to mind “nipples” is neither pandering to “snowflake” ideology nor caving unnecessarily to adolescent buffoonery. It’s simply acknowledging a shift in language over the past few decades that has unfortunately endowed the (rather euphonious, one must admit) name of a conference with an undesirable connotation. To deny this reality is to bury your head in the sand, a charge ironically levied most often against the very “snowflakes” Pinker berates.

85. CS_PhD_Student Says:

Am I the only one who noticed the tags for this post (found immediately after the end of the main post, below the social media buttons) form the acronym “NIP”.

LOL.

Sam #7’s rebuttal is powerful. I went into the comment section believing Pinker and Scott had the better argument, but Sam convinced me. How’s that for an open mind?

87. BoostedWeakLearner Says:

I forgot to add the spectacular own-goal of the name change: there is no pronunciation guide.

For German speakers it is Noi-rips, for Americans it can be Nu-rips, for Brits New-rips. Another accepted pronunciation is Nuh-rips, when said quickly is Nurps which people quickly realised is, you guessed it, even more childish slang for nipples as anyone who received a “purple-nurple” in middle-school can attest to: https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Nurp%21
I’ve personally heard multiple people use this pronunciation in this context, knowingly.

It was done in such a ham-fisted way that swapped one racist-sexist name for a merely sexist one. So, good job, I guess?

88. First secretary for neuronal affairs Says:

Dav #80
Marxist indeed, rumor has it that the MIT CSAIL faculty were saddled with some hefty departmental and personal denouncement quotas to be met following some semirecent transpirings. Comrade Karger will surely be rewarded with an extra ration of grad student.

[This is a warning. Any further comments in the same spirit will be banned. —SA]

89. Scott Says:

Observer #79 and Yisong Yue #82: Thanks for your comments. I agree that, from what we’ve learned, there were good reasons to favor a name change. I agree that those good reasons were part of what the NIPS organizers had in mind. I agree that the name is something for the ML community rather than outsiders to decide. And I agree that Pinker waded in without knowing the internal dynamics of the ML community. Indeed, I don’t know the internal dynamics of the ML community, even though I’ve attended NIPS and spoken there (but that was in 2012, which I guess was just before the surge in corporate interest that you write about…).

Having said that:

(1) Pinker is extremely well-calibrated about how things will play in the wider world. Also, he’s Steven Pinker. If Marie Curie sent me something about biology and said I could publish it on Shtetl-Optimized, then even though she’s not a biologist, I would.

(2) I regret that, for privacy reasons, I couldn’t share the letter that Pinker was responding to. But I found it to be condescending, stuffed with what I think of as “wokesplaining,” and missing the strongest arguments (about the Google search results and so forth).

(3) I confess that things like that letter, or Anima’s comments, are doing some of my and Pinker’s work for us in this conversation. It’s like, whenever someone explains that this is not about shaming the ML community as misogynists or anything scary like that, it’s just about coming together to figure out how to solve this unfortunate namespace collision—well, there’s Anima, to say that no, it absolutely is about shaming the ML community as misogynists. And whenever someone says, “obviously, we’re not saying Steven Pinker is a horrible racist misogynist, we’re just saying he could learn more facts about…”—well, there’s Anima, to say (as she did on my Facebook) that Pinker is a horrible racist misogynist. In each case, she embraces the straw-(wo)man extreme, and she’s far from alone in that.

Finally, so far as I can tell, the only woman who has actually participated in this conversation is Anima, who clearly has an exceptional willingness to engage on it. What kind of signal might this give us about how welcoming this type of discussion is to women?

Ironically, by looking at names and identities of participants in this post David Karger’s has accidentally exposed the precise opposite of what he embarked on exposing in the first place: indeed, almost all of the non-anonymous participants of this and similar discussions are people with power and some fame (Anima is a professor at Caltech, Karger at MIT, Barak at Harvard to name a few). Almost all of whom seem to feel convenient to criticize or educate publicly others about the correct ways to “protect the underprivileged of our society and promote inclusiveness”. While most of those who deviate slightly from the accepted “enlightened” mores of our times need to hide behind anonymity in fear of repercussion, punishment, humiliation, shaming and ostracism, or else they are going to be excluded from their all-inclusive-community.

91. Yisong Yue Says:

The seemingly radical shift in the internal dynamics of NeurIPS is mirrored by the radical growth in the conference. See:
There were over 13K registrations in the recent NeurIPS 2019. So whatever you experienced in 2012 is not representative of the current state of NeurIPS.

Sampling bias is real on social media, because a few people are much more outspoken than most of the others. I do lament that much of the discourse on social media has become a shouting match, when most of us aren’t even shouting at all.

As I mentioned earlier, the main thing I find objectionable about Pinker’s response is that he seemed *so sure* of himself despite appearing to have so little knowledge of the internal workings of the ML community. He might be very well calibrated about how things play out in the wider world, as you say, but I think he’s wrong about his diagnosis of what’s actually happening inside NeurIPS (i.e., “academia losing its mind”). Because of the tone, framing, and focal points of his response, I can see how some might perceive him as being implicitly racist or misogynist by omission.

92. Richard Says:

Scott:

I wonder if, in hindsight, it would have been best to contact the writer(s) of the letter Pinker was responding to in advance of your posting it. You could have let them decide whether to remain anonymous (at least in your post) or to have their identity and/or comments referred to. (Maybe you did this, but it doesn’t appear to be the case.)

Like you, I am an admirer of Steven Pinker. I have read a couple of his books on language, as well as Enlightenment Now. He clearly views linguistic usage as being about how people actually use language in practice (as opposed to being dictated by people in authority positions). So I’m surprised that empirical evidence is not being given more attention in the comments.

93. Scott Says:

Richard #91: I of course also thought about contacting the CS person who’d written to Steve before putting a post up, so I asked Steve if he wanted me to do that. Steve surprised me by saying no. His reasoning was that doing so would create a near-obligation on that other person to continue the conversation, when they may have simply wanted to retire from it.

94. Anonymous Says:

Big fan of the site (and long-time lurker)! Just wanted to say that you always seem very nice Prof. Aaronson, even when you speak to people who aren’t showing the courtesy back (especially in that case, in fact!). I believe that you have no ill will towards anyone, and I admire your strategy for allocating our attention towards the more effective ways we can fight inequality in our communities (to make better science for all humankind!)!

No “but”, that’s all I wanted to say ^_^

95. Observer Says:

@ Scott #88:

But, for me, your #3 is like a false dichotomy or something (where the false dichotomy is between the movement either being about clearing up [what you call] a “namespace collision” or about misogyny in the ML community). The namespace collision became a vehicle for people at NeurIPS to engage in misogynistic behavior — like throwing parties called “TITS” or wearing shirts that say “My NIPS are NP-Hard”. You could imagine that women at the conference would find this unwelcoming. Now, normally if you made jokes like that at an otherwise-serious academic conference, they would seem so out of place and inappropriate (and, yes, misogynistic) that it would be easy to call them out. (“Sorry, we don’t talk like that here.”) But the NIPS acronym gave people some kind of plausible deniability: “I’m not a misogynist — it’s just a pun! Get it? NIPS??”

So, changing the name was a way to both (1) remove this little loophole that lets people make comments that make others feel unwelcome, and (2) remind people more generally that women have *long* felt uncomfortable in the ML community. So now, for someone who might be inclined to behave in one of those borderline-misogynistic ways, they might take a moment to think “Huh, if they really went so far as to change the name of the conference over this, maybe the comment I’m about to make isn’t really called for”. And it also empowers others to call out misogynistic behavior. For example, now, if someone says something inappropriate about the ability of women engineers (or whatever), you might feel more confident that you have the backing of the community to stand up to that person.

What this has to do with Pinker (and maybe you), and my false dichotomy comments above, is that when someone wades in and says “Ugh, people are overreacting to this vague resemblance between two words, everyone these days is so Victorian and afraid of taboos and so sensitive” or whatever, that inevitably comes across as though that person is somehow denying or minimizing the problem of misogyny in ML. Why? Because since the reason for changing the name IS connected to misogyny, to act as though the reason is just some silly fear of similar-sounding words is to ignore the real underlying issue. If I say, “people are using the NIPS acronym to make misogynistic comments; we should change it”, and you say “NIPS is not offensive”, it’s as if you’re not hearing (or worse, ignoring) the real problem I’m pointing to.

To make what might be an unhelpful analogy (let’s see), I’m reminded of an argument that the philosopher of language Jason Stanley made about the phrase “All Lives Matter” as a response to “Black Lives Matter”. When someone says “Black Lives Matter”, what they really mean is “People seem not to realize or care about police shootings and harsh sentences and redlining and other behaviors and policies that target black people more than other people — almost like they think black lives *don’t* matter. But black lives matter *too*, we need to address these things”. And so when someone replies “All Lives Matter”, the actual words they are saying are true (since, of course, all lives matter), but their message ends up amounting to “No, there is no special problem around black lives”. When someone is really burned out at work and says, “I need a vacation”, if you reply “we ALL need a vacation”, you’re either missing the point entirely or, worse, you’re essentially saying “you’re no more burned out than anyone else” and thereby denying that this person is really struggling.

I think something similar is happening here. If people complain that “NIPS” is enabling and highlighting misogynistic behavior, and someone replies “Oh, calm down about one stupid word, everyone is so sensitive these days”, then that person is either not hearing the complaint in the first place (i.e., as being about misogyny), or, worse, denying that there is any underlying problem around misogynistic behavior.

I think you should interpret Anima’s comments in light of this. She may be hearing Pinker (and maybe you) in just that way — as either ignorant of the underlying problems, or as denying that such problems exist at all. And that might well justify some aggressive reply (whether using her exact words or some other words; I can’t see the Facebook thread). I confess that I too hear Pinker (and maybe you) this way, *even though* Pinker (and you) explicitly state that you oppose misogyny, and even though you say you aren’t taking a position on NIPS vs. NeurIPS. To my ears, at least, Pinker (and maybe you) sound a lot like someone who says “Racism is bad, but also All Lives Matter” — opposed to bad behavior in principle but also kinda seeming to deny or ignore that it’s actually happening.

My \$0.02

96. BoostedWeakLearner Says:

There isn’t a monolithic group of women who all agree on the issue (and certainly not with Anima’s way of doing things). Furthermore, there was a group of powerful women who were responsible for ensuring past indiscretions were swept under the rug.

Second, TITS.ai wasn’t misogynist and the new name doesn’t change the situation for those who want to make the same jokes. Its just a little bit more obscure. Again the problem with doing this in a rush and without properly taking the opinion of the community at large into advisement.

Finally, the comparison with BLM is just absurd. First, no-one is getting gunned down or imprisoned en-masse. Secondly, not even Pinker is denying that those striving for change have a point. Its just that the name was a non-issue for most (as evidenced by the poll) and by the terrible behaviour enabled elsewhere in the community. The thing with BLM is that you can point to demonstrable harm that is a direct result of the injustices that activists are working to end. With the NIPS name debate, that part is entirely missing, aside of a Tshirt worn by 20 people and a comment made by a billionaire famous for making inflammatory and borderline illegal comments publicly.

97. Observer95 Says:

Observer 94, another person has written that TITS was not a party thrown by some guys, rather 70 percent of the organizers were women. About the tshirt incident, it was juvenile, could be ignored or handled in some other way. About real harassers exploiting the name of NIPS–seems very far-fetched, but could be true as human stupidity is infinite. Finally, as the name was colliding with other sites and nips became a slang in pop-culture, it was a valid reason to change, I agree. But the harsh attitude towards the people who resisted the change was in bad faith. We still have a lot of problems and and discussions in a friendly environment would bring changes. Hostile allegations would do no good.

98. Observer Says:

@ BoostedWeakLearner #95:

– Not sure what the relevance of women @ “TITS” is; misogyny is something that societies, institutions, and people engage in, not something that only certain men can engage in. But even so, as you say it sounds like the organizer herself was in part making a political point criticizing/lampooning “NIPS”. I don’t read that as her saying “Hahaha, NIPS is so funny to me too”; I read it as “‘NIPS’ is dumb, and here’s how I’ll show how dumb it is”. But like you say, that person should have the final word, I don’t want to speculate further.

– For BLM, your reply is not engaging my point, and even seems in “bad faith” as they say. Clearly I am not saying that the name “NIPS” is like people “getting gunned down” (??). There are some similarities, but that’s not one of them. That’s why I concluded with a different example around burnout and a vacation (no guns there). I’m making a point about how a seemingly innocent reply like “ALL lives matter” or “we ALL need a vacation” or “you are too easily offended” can actually sound like (or be) a veiled *denial* of the problem the person was initially pointing out. If you’re going to reply, please reply to that point, not some imagined claim you think I’m making about machine learning researchers imprisoning people…

99. Change Namer Says:

Scott #88 wrote : “In each case, she embraces the straw-(wo)man extreme, and she’s far from alone in that.“

To add to that, it is made worse by the silence of the large moderate majority who abstain from condemning the ad hominem attacks. From the point of view of junior women in the field, this is what their role models do. The vast majority in its silence is supporting this behavior. Steven is a “horrible racist misogynist”. Scott’s unfriending on fb is “blocking”. See the Twitter account of some of our warriors: any disagreement with one of them must be because of racism or misogyny. Where are the moderate reasoned voices? Will anyone (Yisong? Boaz? David?) speak up that you find Anima’s method of discourse problematic the way you complained about Steven Pinker pbeing wrong? There are complains about Pinker sounding too sure of himself; what about Anima being sure that Steven is a racist? Or would pointing that out be “tone policing” which is almost as bad a crime as harassment?

And if this was one voice amongst many reasonable voices, it wouldn’t be a cause for concern. All the role models that young ml women see on Twitter behave in this way. I worry that in ignoring this issue as shouting match on social media, we may be ensuring that the next generation of this community would take this as the only method of discourse, and these opinions to be the only politically correct opinion.

100. Scott Says:

Yisong Yue #82 and #90: Thanks very much for your informative comments.

I actually feel like, wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, there’s been progress in this conversation. Like, we’ve heard from some partisans on both sides who’d never, ever concede anything, but meanwhile, the “moderates” on each side have by now conceded so much of what matters to the opposing side, that very little daylight between the two sets of moderates remains.

To recap, I’m totally fine with the name “NeurIPS.” The decision in any case belongs to the ML community rather than to outsiders. But as far as this outsider can see, it was a good decision, taken for a list of reasons that included good reasons.

I disagree with the tactics that were used to procure the decision, which seem to have included the shaming of those who disagree—a tactic that we regrettably saw on display in this thread (indeed, from both sides). Since putting up this post, I’ve heard privately from a couple of ML researchers who said that they couldn’t share their views about these shaming tactics under their own names, because of the risk of professional repercussions. And I’m almost certain that these shaming tactics, rather than the actual name change decision, were the part that Pinker objected to as well.

101. Scott Says:

Everyone: I’ve decided to close down this thread tonight. As I said, I feel like the moderates on both sides have already made whatever progress can be made, and I’d like to move on to topics that interest me more.

So please get in any final comments in the next couple hours. Just “closing statements,” please, no new directions calling for a new response from me.

I’d like to thank everyone who came here to hash things out in good faith—and to stress that, as far as I’m concerned, that included the majority of the participants on both sides of the issue.

102. Richard Says:

Scott #92:

You wrote that Pinker’s reasoning was that, contacting the person who his letter was responding to would “create a near-obligation on that other person to continue the conversation, when they may have simply wanted to retire from it”. But then the logical thing for him to do would have been to write his points in a separate guest column. It would have read better, without the distraction of a phantom addressee. Why recycle the letter, out of context, instead?

I’m harping on this detail because I think that a procedural error was made, which gave some commenters an impression that the opposing point of view was being muzzled/unwelcome. This may be unfair, and I personally think that you are discussing things in good faith.

103. Scott Says:

Richard #100: Thanks! That’s extremely insightful—I confess that I hadn’t thought about it that way at all, but once it’s pointed out, the strategic blunder is clear. I’d been completely wrapped up in thinking about the trouble that I could get into by including the letter.

104. asdf Says:

Once upon a time (1970s-80s I guess) there was a computer consulting company called Advanced Information Decision Systems. It changed its name when the epidemiological meaning of its acronym came into prominence a while later. Stuff happens.

105. Scott Says:

Incidentally, Anonymous #93:

Big fan of the site (and long-time lurker)! Just wanted to say that you always seem very nice Prof. Aaronson, even when you speak to people who aren’t showing the courtesy back (especially in that case, in fact!). I believe that you have no ill will towards anyone, and I admire your strategy for allocating our attention towards the more effective ways we can fight inequality in our communities (to make better science for all humankind!)!
No “but”, that’s all I wanted to say ^_^

Thank you so much.

106. Yisong Yue Says:

Some closing thoughts:

— I think the “interest of humanity” could’ve been much better served with a different approach to this highly charged topic. For instance, if you feel compelled to let Pinker to provide an outsider’s opinion, allow an ML insider to provide internal perspective and context. I realize, this creates additional logistics that may be undesirable for a personal blog.

— The cultural change within the ML community is something that many people worked hard for. It’s not perfect, but I am pleased with the current progress. You can imagine the negative reaction to the glib prelude you gave Pinker’s (in my view very tone-deaf) response. Pinker may have been calling out some of the worst impulses in our community in terms of political correctness and virtue signaling, but that was far from clear in a first reading of his response. A first pass reading gave the impression of someone out-of-touch with the ML community making commentary that, at best, was touching on a narrow set of issues related to the NeurIPS name change, and, at worst, was implicitly condoning misogyny by omission.

107. Yisong Yue Says:

Last thing. Over the years, I have greatly enjoyed reading your blog. I know it is hard to publicly discuss such difficult topics, and I have admired your willingness to do so. Please keep it up!

108. Dan T. Says:

asdf #103: And there was a computer store in San Francisco called “A.I.D.S.” as well. I remember seeing it on a trip there in the early ’80s, just when the disease was starting to get mentioned in the news, and finding the name incongruous; not too long afterward they either changed their name or went out of business, I’m not sure which.

109. Scott Says:

Yisong #105: For me, one of the fundamental advantages of blogs as a medium is that, whenever you’ve missed some important aspect of what you’re writing about, you can usually count on experts to set you straight in the comments section in mere hours or days. I.e., in the most literal and obvious sense, you’re writing for your own edification as much as others’. I certainly found that to be the case here.

110. David Karger Says:

Scott #81: I’m really sorry that my post came acress as hostile, as that was far from the intent. Indeed, the whole point of my post was argue that we need to invest extra effort to avoid sending a hostile message to the more vulnerable members of our community. I believe that all of the posts on this thread could have been written differently to achieve this while making exactly the same substantive points.

Attempting to practice my preach, I led off with my belief that the posters here are open minded and arguing in good faith. I then directed my comments at the *language* of various posts rather than their substance, using post numbers instead of people names because the posts not the people were the focus.

The fact that I failed to avoid creating a hostile impression even when specifically trying to do so is a nice demonstration of how important it is to work at it.

I’ve been reflecting on this a great deal recently, and attempting to refine my own participation online, as a result of experiences participating in the Eppstein/Stallman thread that made it into the press a few months ago. I participated in that thread, replying to a post that I felt had been mistaken regarding the definition of “consent”. I did not bother to address the numerous other posts about the hardships faced by women in the field, as I felt this was well understood. A few weeks later, some colleagues pointed out the message I was sending: that the exact definition of a term was worthy of discussion while the suffering of victims was not. What I learned from that is that what you choose not to discuss can have as much harmful impact as what you choose to discuss. Observer #94 makes this point really well. And I’ve heard it from many young women (and a few men) graduate students in our department.

I certainly still consider you a friend! And knowing your own positions on harassment and feminism, it’s easy for me to give you the benefit of the doubt about your meaning when I find the exact words questionable. Yours also were *not* among the comments I called out, because you generally were careful to qualify your comments with recognition that there are real issues here. On the other hand, I (like #69) consider Anima’s approach really hurtful, as she specifically insults the speakers as opposed to engaging with what has been said.

Yes, in reading the 75 comments I missed Vanessa’s. And there may well be other women hiding behind the pseudonyms. But 2/75 doesn’t even approach the 10% factor you suggest is typical. Again, from speaking to women in our department, I get the sense that they are just exhausted from always having to get up and make these points (and face the flack that comes back in response) so they just don’t participate.

111. Scott Says:

David Karger #109: Thanks so much for the gracious and thoughtful followup—it meant a lot to me.

I just realized that, in listing female commenters, I’d somehow missed my good friend Barbara Terhal #40 ! But Barbara was commenting on “quantum supremacy” and said nothing directly about NIPS vs. NeurIPS. So let’s count the verified female vote as 1 for Pinker’s position, 1 against, and 1 abstention.

Also, at the point (#77) where you were saying that Anima was the only woman here, by my count there had been 49 unique commenters (not counting me), of whom:
– I’m reasonably sure that 24 were men
– I’m sure that 3 were women
– I’m unsure about the rest (but presumably they’re mostly men)
So, this is extremely close to the ~90% male figure that I mentioned as (alas) “standard” for blogs like this one, regardless of whether the topic du jour is technical or social. Of course I’d love to do better and I warmly welcome new readers, especially ones from outside the nerd blogosphere’s usual demographics.

112. Raetihi Says:

I am not clearly on either side of this debate. My concluding thoughts:

Names/acronyms have usually more than one meaning. In the present context, conference NIPS is one meaning, nipple nips another, candy Nips yet another, ethnic-slur Nips yet another. The frequencies with which these meanings occur in a Google or Google image search should be completely irrelevant to the matter at hand, although most participants in this debate apparently consider them to be central. Science is a small part of human life, NIPS-related science an even smaller part. OF COURSE other meanings will dominate the results of a Google search! So what? All it takes is to draw a clear line between conference NIPS and any other nips out there. This is primarily the responsibility of the conference organisers.

If I had been a NIPS organiser (this is extremely hypothetical because I have not even been a participant) in the year X, I hope I would have handled the issue like this. Assuming that nipple jokes had already occurred in previous years, I would have written a brief note to the participants of NIPS X. As part of the registration process, each participant would have to check a box indicating that they have read the note and will act accordingly. The note would have politely pointed out that any wordplay on the acronym NIPS by participants, either via text or images, either on social media, on t-shirts, in front of open microphones or just in audible conversation at the conference venue, is strongly discouraged by the organisers. Jokes in general would be welcome, but not if they betray the mental age of a 12-year old and thereby disturb the intended cooperative atmosphere at the conference and/or put the conference in a bad light to the outside world.

In the hopefully unlikely case that some people still misbehaved during the conference, they would have been reminded in slightly stronger words, but still politely, that the organisers frown upon that behaviour, and that any repetition would result in an immediate ban from the NIPS venue.

No renaming would have been seriously discussed or voted on. NIPS would still be NIPS. If non-participants still could not have resisted the urge to make puerile NIPS jokes on the internet, then everyone at NIPS should have relaxed and learned to live with it. NIPS would have distanced itself from this kind of humour, so let the idiots write whatever they want.

Maybe I am misjudging the audience of NIPS conferences, but I am very confident that this approach would have worked for every conference *I* have ever co-organised or attended.

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