Hypersensitive Profanity Filter Censors ‘Bone’ at Paleontology Conference

Moved online due to the pandemic, an automated content filter banned terms including “sexual,” “pubic” and “stream”

T. rex fossil posed with a Triceratops
A Tyrannosaurus rex posed with a Triceratops at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. National Museum of Natural History

Participants in the 80th annual Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) conference last week knew things were going to be different than usual, as the coronavirus pandemic had forced the entire program online. What the virtual attendees didn’t expect was that a profanity filter aimed at keeping attendees’ verbiage in good taste had run amok.

Maria Cramer of the New York Times relays the experience of Thomas R. Holtz Jr., a Tyrannosaurus rex expert at the University of Maryland, who typed “Hell Creek Formation” in response to a colleague’s question following a presentation. But when Holtz’s message appeared in the chat, it instead appeared as “**** Creek Formation.”

Holtz took to Twitter, where other colleagues shared similar experiences and collaborated to form a list of words banned by the algorithm, some of which happened to be right in the wheelhouse of the paleontology lexicon.

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

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

Other words on the list included beaver, ball, stroke, pubis, wang, jerk, knob, stroke, stream, erection, dyke, crack and enlargement, per the list.

Convey Services, the company handling the conference’s online logistics, was responsible for the pre-packaged naughty-word filter.

“All software plug-ins are going to have filters in to make sure you don’t get out of control,”Carolyn Bradfield, chief executive of Convey Services, tells the Times. “In that particular case, the filter was too tight...I don’t know why in the world the word ‘bone’ was in there,” Bradfield tells the Times.

“After getting a good belly laugh out of the way on the first day and some creative wording (my personal favorite was Heck Creek for Hell Creek), some of us reached out to the business office, and they’ve been un-banning words as we stumble across them,” an SVP member explained on a Reddit thread quoted by Poppy Noor of the Guardian.

But some of the banned terms displayed an offensive Western bias. In a tweet, Jack Tseng, a paleontologist at the University of California, Berkeley, notes that “‘Wang’ is banned but not ‘Johnson’ (both used as slangs). This Western-centric filter erasing the surname of 90+ million Chinese but not <2 million people of European descent is unexpectedly on brand for 2020, @SVP_vertpaleo! My PhD advisor is X. **** by the way.”

Tseng tells Vice that “recognizing these biases at the design level,” and amending text filter algorithms accordingly “would go a long way in creating a more welcoming environment for all participants.” But Tseng also commended the swift action taken by SVP’s organizers once the issue was raised, telling Vice it was “an example of the best first line of response for others who encounter similar issues.”

The Times notes that the SVP conference is not the first virtual academic conference to run afoul of content filters aimed at keeping proceedings above board. In 2016, a video about breast exams created by the Swedish Cancer Society featured square-shaped breasts in its graphics to avoid censorship by Facebook, reported Julia Carrie Wong of the Guardian at the time.

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