Science magazine conflates social movements with scientific breakthroughs

December 2, 2018 • 9:00 am

Reader Bryan called my attention to Science magazine’s contest in which readers can vote for the scientific breakthroughs of the year. As the site says (click on screenshot below):

It’s that time of the year again: Science’s reporters and editors are homing in on the Breakthrough of the Year, our choice of the most significant scientific discovery, development, or trend in 2018. That selection, along with nine runners-up, will be announced when the last issue of the year goes online on 20 December.

It’s pretty clear that the contest is about scientific breakthroughs. But one of them is not like the others:

Why is #MeToo in there? Science explains:

The #MeToo movement made significant gains in science. Several institutions upheld long-standing allegations against prominent scientists accused of sexual harassment, discrimination, or bullying, and a U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report called for systemic changes to prevent such abuse.

This is a social breakthrough, not a scientific one, even if #MeToo had the effect described.  Of course I applaud the recent trend to call out and weed out sexual harassment and abuse in science, as well as statements by scientific societies and universities that this behavior won’t be tolerated. But finding something out that’s true about the universe is not in the same class as purging bigotry and sexism from science. The first includes matters of fact, the second matters of morality. Once more (Nature did it recently), a scientific journal conflates ideology—though it’s one I agree with—with factuality.

At any rate, you can vote at the site for whatever breakthroughs you consider the most important, though I think people will tend to vote for things in their favorite area.

28 thoughts on “Science magazine conflates social movements with scientific breakthroughs

  1. At the same time isn’t it too early to say that #metoo has made a lasting difference? It seems like there is always too much expectancy around social movements, and a tendency to declare the swallow makes a summer.

    1. True. And the movement has happened at least once before but then faded. One difference now is the existence of social media which amplifies everything.

    2. Reporter : “What do you think of the French Revolution?”
      Ho Chi Minh : “It is too early to say yet.”
      circa 1971.
      (It has to be said that the reporter may have been asking about the 1792 or 1848 revolution, and Ho Chi Minh answering about the 1968 revolution. And it may have been Mao Zedong, not Ho Chi Minh, I forget.)
      On the principle that scientific paradigm changes proceed one funeral at a time, then 2070 would be a good time to start looking at the long term effects of #MeToo.

      1. Hey, took Gibbon 13 centuries after the sacking of Rome by the Visigoths (and a few hundred years after the fall of Byzantium) to give us his take on the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, and academics have been debating it ever since.

  2. I was looking through all the breakthroughs for one that seemed to be a real breakthrough rather than a cool discovery about something already known, or an important technological achievement. Nothing really jumped out at me, although the RNAi drug looks like it could be very important.

  3. I also don’t see #MeToo as a breakthrough in any way. It is to a large degree the longing of social media users to be historically relevant.

    Civil rights activists are now in an age where they ascend to cultural heaven, and are memorized as brave. Others, who did too little, or where on the “wrong side of history” are now condemned.

    A new generation sees this, and of course want to be seen heroic. We all leave records and it seems everyone senses that their behaviour will be studied if not by historians, then by their own descendants, the line of children and grand-grand children. And many want to appear at their historically best. This is what I see as the woke’s church visit: showing the correct belief to a public, by showing up in best Sunday clothes.

    That is not say that #MeToo isn’t important, but I consider the narrative totally false that before the hashtag, sexual asssault or harassment was acceptable and now it no longer is. That’s blatantly untrue.

    The importance lies in social media, i.e. a technological advancement, not a moral one, that allowed publicity to give victims a voice, and leverage, which didn’t exist before (so that the powerful could more easily get away).

    It also provided a direct, more relatable survey of the problem. This however has its own problems; learning about every robbery, bar fight, every crime — that more distorts perception.

    Here woke and far right are once more alike: one side deems it important to learn of every sexually creepy behaviour (and worse), and it totally informs their views, and the others deem it important to know of every lowest crime and worse committed by the wrong group of people (usually immigrants, or refugees, other nationalities or skin colours and so forth).

    1. “I also don’t see #MeToo as a breakthrough in any way. It is to a large degree the longing of social media users to be historically relevant.”

      Ooh that was nasty. 🙂 And even more so because it’s true.

      Not so long ago, “Me-too-ism” was a derogatory term, used for people who didn’t have the guts to speak for themselves but would pile on like a mob of hyenas if someone else led the attack.
      Social media users are exactly like that.
      The #MeToo movement should have found a less suspect label, if they want to avoid the implication that that’s all they are.

      In a few years time, #MeToo will be a tiny blip in history like hula hoops or planking. And even if it isn’t, it won’t be a *scientific* breakthrough.


    2. “This is what I see as the woke’s church visit: showing the correct belief to a public, by showing up in best Sunday clothes.”

      Spot on analogy! Basically virtue signaling. These same people wouldn’t actually help people and do good things – hell maybe some of them really do but most certainly don’t- yet want to be seen as saints. These days it’s about satisfying the emotions of others on a mass scale. If you don’t conform to the extended highschool environment of facebook and twitter, then the system rejects you. This is the social programming we see infesting the Chinese, egged on by their government and depicted as horror by Black Mirror – which is a great show if you haven’t seen it!

      To the second half of your comment, I believe the term you are looking for is confirmation bias 😉

  4. If the MeToo movement wants to do some good, I’d suggest focusing on pro sports. As even though the recently released video of Kc football player Kareem Hunt shoving and kicking a young woman got him released from the team, it happened months ago, the team knew about it but ignored it, and a recent local poll showed something like 56% of fans don’t think he should have been punished. After all, winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.

  5. I voted “droplets”. That was after I saw the two big WEIT topics but after I really paid attention to the #MeToo topic description – thanks to PCC(E) – which appears to play a game with the word “science”.

    in the first sentence of the #MeToo description, the exact definition for the word “science” is not clear. The sentences that follow suggest they mean a grand, general definition for it, such as a geographic description on a university campus map – “the science quad”. The reader is left returning to the attention-grabber “scientific breakthrough” to make their choice. Well, I guess if THAT’S what they mean, then… sure, but… if THAT’S what they mean, then….

    I am ThyroidPlanet and I thought carefully before pressing the “Post Comment” button.

  6. I voted for the Neanderthal/Denisovan hybrid. After having just read Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past by David Reich, I was primed to vote this way. New details about the story of our history as a species are just so breathtaking. Many of the other discoveries were also impressive and have the potential to profoundly effect future developments.

  7. Doubling research funding would be very good for science and the scientific community too. It would certainly facilitate scientific breakthroughs, as will opening the endeavor to more people. But it would not itself be a scientific breakthrough. Sloppy and manipulative language is a characteristic of left, right, religion, politics, and generally everyone I loathe. This smells of nothing but the latest cheap perfume, Eau de Virtue.

    1. Read my mind – with their definition they could’ve said increases in funding was a scientific breakthrough.

    2. “Editor’s note: We originally included the claim of gene-edited babies as a candidate; we have since removed it to avoid giving the mistaken impression that Science endorses this ethically fraught work.”

      Eau de Virtue, all right.

      Doubtless if the obvious benefits of ‘editing out’ certain hereditary conditions eventually win out over the bogeyman of ‘designer babies’, Science will be fawning all over the pioneers.

      (I’m not sure how much ‘designer babies’ is a bogeyman inspired by fear of the unfamiliar or ‘something might go wrong’, or how many real threats there are. Is it any different from where ‘test tube babies’ were 20 years ago? I don’t know.)


      1. Or, as I like to call it, the Odor of Sanctimony. Refusing to include something like this because it is “ethically fraught” – i.e. some people have supposedly moral objections to it that may well be irrational – looks cowardly and, as is being suggested, like simple virtue signalling.

        If they’d excluded it because of doubts about the genuineness of the claims, something that I haven’t looked into in this case, but that I’m always suspicious about with such claims, it would be totally different.

        1. That said, now I’ve looked a bit further, the particular experiment does appear to have been irresponsible in the extreme: I just wish that the editor’s note had expressed the point in that way, rather than using sanctimonious language that gives oxygen to the view that all such research must be ethically dubious. Also, given the doubt surrounding the whole thing, it would not have been appropriate to regard this as a “breakthrough” in any way. But again, that’s a different point.

  8. Young graduates come out of postmodernist degree programs in the humanities and into editorial positions at Science, Nature and similar, and then they start virtue signalling.

  9. Needless to say, the mere identification of a “scientific breakthrough” is not so easy. In modern medicine, advances in imagery, in laparascopic surgery, and in external beam radiation therapy, have all been highly consequential and life-saving, but all depend now on computer techniques that were developed incrementally. So the advances were in the world of computing, as much as in biomedicine, and few could see at each point how computing was enabling a suite of “breakthroughs” in medical practise. This history illustrates how problematic the very idea of a “breakthrough” is.

    For another example, take the case of “Studies on Plant Hybridization”, a paper by one Gregor Mendel published in 1866. Though it constitutes probably the greatest single breakthrough in the history of Biology, it was cited only three times in the next 33 years, before being rediscovered in 1900. In other words, this whole contest in Science magazine is more than a little silly.

    1. In other words, this whole contest in Science magazine is more than a little silly.

      What part of ‘magazine contest’ don’t you get?

      Oh and I went for the cell development.

  10. Apparently all the online voting is done. The results are on the original page. Looks like the most votes went to…. OH I won’t spoil it.

  11. I agree, it has no place in a science competition. It’s a great social achievement, this is just more evidence of the politicization of the scientific community. Scientists should be apolitical and focus on unbiased research!

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