Overzealous profanity filter bans paleontologists from talking about bones

Participants in a virtual paleontology session found themselves caught between a rock and a hard place last week, when a profanity filter prevented them from using certain words – such as bone, pubic, stream and, er, beaver – during an online conference.

The US-based Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) held its annual meeting virtually this year due to the pandemic, but soon found its audience stifled when they tried to use particular words.

Convey Services, which was was handling the conference, used a “naughty-word filter,” for the conference, outlawing a pre-selected list of words.

“Words like ‘bone’, ‘pubic’, and ‘stream’ are frankly ridiculous to ban in a field where we regularly find pubic bones in streams,” said Brigid Christison, a master’s student in biology attending the event, in an interview with Vice.

To root out wrongly identified “naughty words”, SVP members created a spreadsheet tracking all the words that seem to have been banned, and shared it on Twitter. It included: damn, hell, ball, stroke, pubis, wang, jerk, knob, stroke, stream, erection, dyke, crack and enlargement.

Having set up a Reddit thread for the conference where members of the public could ask questions, organizers apologized for the confusion, explaining that the platform they used to host the event was clearly set up for business and industry meetings, rather than science events.

“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 to Reddit users.

Some discovered bias in the algorithm, too. Jack Tseng, a vertebrate paleontologist from the University of Berkley pointed out that the filter had banned the common surname Wang but not Johnson – even though both are frequently used as slang words to describe a man’s genitals.

The Guardian

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