The virtual conference was thrown into confusion after a filter on the platform hosting the event banned words key to the paleontological pursuit.
"Words like 'bone', 'pubic', and 'stream' are frankly ridiculous to ban in a field where we regularly find pubic bones in streams", said one participant.
As a result of the pandemic, almost all conferences had to move to the online environment -- which can be useful in some ways, but is quite challenging in others.
The US-based Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) held its annual meeting virtually but was met with uproar as participants were not allowed to use particular words in their papers. The first one that came up was 'bone'.
Sure, 'bone' can be used in a naughty way, but you can't just ask a paleontologist not to talk about bones -- that's the gist of what they do. In no time, complaints started to pile up, with people complaining about not being able to submit papers with words like 'sexual', 'pubis', or 'beaver'.
Even the word 'hell' was banned.
“Apparently it came with a pre-packaged naughty-word filter. 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 in a Reddit thread where the situation was addressed.
As it turns out, the problem was owed to an overzealos word filter. The platform where the conference was hosted on came with the filter preinstalled, and little did the anti-profanity filter know many of the words it was blocking are key to paleontologists.
Luckily, the bug was identified and fixed quickly. Participants made a Google Doc where the banned words were listed and manually approved.
The mood shifted from amusement to irritation several times. After the initial amusement turned into uproar and then the problem was addressed, some were amused once again. But others were quick to point out a more pervasive side to the filter.
Jack Tseng, a vertebrate paleontologist from the University of Berkley, pointed out that the filter had banned the common surname Wang, but not Johnson, although both are used as slang to describe a man's genitals.
However, Tseng was also quick to point out that the immediate action taken by SVP organizers was “an example of the best first line of response for others who encounter similar issues.”
Ultimately, filters like this are important to ensure that the discussion remains civil -- but this is a reminder that a one-size-fits-all approach just won't cut it.
The paleontology conference didn't report any notable incidents after this. It was a lot to swallow and the spirited conversations still continue, but the main focus of the conference (fossilized vertebrates) continued unabated. You can follow the conference on its website or with the hashtag #2020SVP.