Nature: Manuscripts that are ideologically impure and “harmful” will be rejected

August 26, 2022 • 10:45 am

UPDATE:  Two tweets in agreement with each other and my sentiments:

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This new article in Nature Human Behavior Is well-intentioned, aiming to purge bigotry from science, but goes way over the top in three ways. First, it claims that science is complicit in structural racism at present.  That’s not true, though in the past some scientists and institutions were guilty of this. Second, it assumes that papers submitted to the journal are going to be rife with racism, bigotry, misogyny, and anti-LGBTQ+ bias that will cause “harm”, and therefore authors must be warned in a long document about their biases and how to avoid expressing them. The piece thus gives a long set of rules that actually conform to woke practice. Third, it explicitly states that even papers with publishable scientific results can be rejected if the facts presented are deemed liable to cause harm. And “harm” is often in the gut of the beholder. The article is thus a threat that unless articles conform to a specific ideological stance, they can be rejected even if the data themselves are worth publishing.

It is a patronizing piece full of Pecksniffery, but doesn’t differ in in substance from many similar articles appearing in scientific journals. The most dangerous thing is the implication that “harm” is grounds for rejection—and we know how many statements or results can be construed as “harmful”, including the claim that there are two sexes in humans, or any number of facts about human groups.  These days people are so eager to take offense that the guidelines have the potential to turn into pure censorship of any science that could offend anyone.

I of course have no quarrel with the title of the article. Who could? What bothers me is the implicit threat that one’s submitted manuscripts must be ideologically correct, purged of all potentially harmful stuff, or else be rejected.

Click to read (free pdf here):

A few quotes from the piece to give its tenor:

Well-established ethics frameworks govern the conduct of studies with human participants. Research ethics bodies use these frameworks to examine prospectively whether research projects involving human participants align with ethical principles.

However, these frameworks apply to research involving the participation of humans and do not generally consider the potential benefits and harms of research about humans who do not participate directly in the research. Such research is typically exempt from ethics review.

Yet, people can be harmed indirectly. For example, research may — inadvertently — stigmatize individuals or human groups. It may be discriminatory, racist, sexist, ableist or homophobic. It may provide justification for undermining the human rights of specific groups, simply because of their social characteristics.

This is the problem: who gets to decide what is “stigmatizing” or “harmful”? Clearly such statements can be inadvertent or unconscious. Presumably the editors could decide, but they of course will be very responsive to objections from other scientists, from the public—indeed, from anybody. But it’s already too late to ask for rational consideration.

Another:

Science has for too long been complicit in perpetuating structural inequalities and discrimination in society. With this guidance, we take a step towards countering this. The guidance is printed in full below and we encourage our readers to contact us with their comments and feedback.

Science now or science then? Right now science is busy trying to ensure equity and avoid stigmatizing any minorities. There are DEI statements, preferential hiring, and a drive to diversify students and professors. Much of this I approve of. But if there has been a problem with racist, sexist, or homophobic manuscripts, I am not aware of it. I’ve reviewed hundreds of manuscripts in my career, and I can’t remember even one that smacked of bigotry. The problem is certainly not rife in my field, and I seriously doubt that it’s widespread in the sciences.

Then comes the implicit threat (I’ve put it in bold):

We also highlight the importance of respectful, non-stigmatizing language to avoid perpetuating stereotypes and causing harm to individuals and groups.

Advancing knowledge and understanding is a fundamental public good. In some cases, however, potential harms to the populations studied may outweigh the benefit of publication. Academic content that undermines the dignity or rights of specific groups; assumes that a human group is superior or inferior over another simply because of a social characteristic; includes hate speech or denigrating images; or promotes privileged, exclusionary perspectives raises ethics concerns that may require revisions or supersede the value of publication.

Note: “potential” harms. Someone has to decide what harms are “potential.”

As we all know, “hate speech” has such wide interpretation that it’s almost useless.  Yes, there is true hateful speech, like “Jews are innately acquisitive”, and it’s possible that some manuscripts could be overtly racist or bigoted. But how often do journals get such things? The problem is that “hate speech” is more often a synonym for “speech that offends at least one person in the world.” And that includes all speech.

The paper goes on to give a long list of no-nos, most of which are superfluous.  And the ones that aren’t superfluous are subject to such variable interpretation that it would scare me away from submitting anything relevant to human society to the journal, which after all is Nature Human Behavior. 

I have four responses from colleagues who read this article.

One tendered this quote from Enrico Fermi:

“Whatever Nature has in store for mankind, unpleasant as it may be, men must accept, for ignorance is never better than knowledge.”

Of course “men” itself is admittedly sexist, so let’s substitute “people” for that.

Another from a colleague after I beefed that I would be called an alt-righter for highlighting this paper:

Naturally, because any academic taking issue with these guidelines must be someone who wants to “undermine dignity” and “stigmatize groups”, right?  Because WHY ELSE WOULD YOU PROTEST? That’s the childish logic that people are already using on Twitter.

From another one who read the editorial:

Did you see that new editorial by Nature Human Behavior already, containing “ethical guidelines” for publication about differences between human groups? The termites have apparently dined well and deep. The journal basically reserves the right to amend/refuse/retract any publication that causes “potential harms” to any human groups (including religious and cultural groups), that “undermines the human dignity” of said groups, or that “promotes privileged/exclusionary perspectives” (all suitably vague terms to be defined at editorial discretion according to reigning ideological orthodoxy).
This is sure to have a chilling effect on academic free speech. Ironically, some of the statements about biological sex in the editorial (they still concede it exists!) could undoubtedly be construed as “harmful” and “exclusionary” by the Woke, thus hoisting the journal by its own petard.

And from a colleague who happens to be a woman:

Knowledge per se isn’t what causes “harm”.  It is politics that does.  So if research finds out that women are more passive than men and not as ambitious, would that “harm” women?  Not unless they pass laws that women should thus not be CEOs due to their inherent lack of ambition.  (This is just a silly example – but there is nothing about groups that should determine how you treat individuals; after all groups have standard deviations and are all largely overlapping.)

54 thoughts on “Nature: Manuscripts that are ideologically impure and “harmful” will be rejected

  1. MEPs (morals, ethics and principles) are for lazy people who are too lazy to work out what actions will give their desired result in any given situation. I suppose I fall into the category of lazy at times.

    1. We need a Quillette for academia.

      “Nature Human Quillette”
      “Science Quillette”
      “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Quillette)”
      🙂

  2. I interviewed for an editorial job at Nature Human Behavior and mentioned Haidt and Pinker. The chief editor, Stavroula Kousta, cringed. Her PhD is in English and Applied Linguistics. It was very clear in the interview that she was woke.

    1. What is the research remit of Nature Human Behaviour that it can plausibly have an English PhD as its editor? …

    2. “It was very clear in the interview that she was woke.”

      At least she was not the opposite of woke — asleep.

  3. So if you do research that says that STEM-capable women tend to opt for medicine, veterinary science, and other “people”, areas, whereas STEM-capable men tend to opt for engineering, computer coding and other “thing” areas, and thus one should not expect equal representation in all subject areas, then you are being being sexist so they won’t publish it.

    And if you do research that says that women tend to (entirely sensibly) prioritise work/life balance, whereas men more-often target high-salaried career progression to the detriment of work/balance, and so you would not expect equity at the CEO level, then you are being being sexist so they won’t publish it.

    And if you do research suggesting that the higher rate at which black Americans are killed by cops can be explained by the higher rate of violent crime commited by that group, then you are “stigmatizing” them and so they won’t publish it.

    And if you do research showing that right-wing Trump supporters are more likely to reject science and believe in conspiracy theories than centrist or left-wing people, then you are “stigmatizing” such people and “undermining their dignity” so they won’t … no scrub that, of course they will publish that, because the rules will be enforced by the woke in line with their predilictions.

    [Note, all of the above things are actually true, and surely being true is what should matter most in what gets published?]

    1. “So if you do research that says that STEM-capable women tend to opt for medicine, veterinary science, and other “people”, areas, whereas STEM-capable men tend to opt for engineering, computer coding and other “thing” areas, and thus one should not expect equal representation in all subject areas, then you are being being sexist so they won’t publish it.”

      No, I think it depends on the causes: if you claim that evolved biology make women to choose “people” jobs (whatever this means), they will reject your paper for stupid; but if you say that discrimination, gender bias, stereotypes among other sociological factors create the STEM gap, it could be published.

      1. Wait, are you claiming it’s stupid to consider biological sexual dimorphism as a factor in widespread behavioral differences between the sexes?

        1. Depends on what differences we are talking about.
          Differences in dressing? Yes, it’s stupid.
          Differences in career choice? Yes, it’s stupid.
          Differences in job interests? Yes, it’s also stupid.
          Differences in movie preferences? Yes, it’s stupid.
          Differences in reading subjects? Yes, it’s stupid.
          And so on…

          1. None of those are stupid. In fact, it is the OPPOSITE of stupid. It is clear that there are innate differences in interests and personality between the sexes, and it is well established that women are far more interested in people-oriented professions while men are far more likely to go into things-oriented professions. In fact, you can see something similar even in apes, as young monkey and chimpanzee males prefer to play with trucks and the females prefer to play with dolls.

          2. To continue my argument, it is certain that sex differences in movie and reading preferences are also partly due to biology. Women are higher than men on traits neuroticism and agreeableness, and they are more likely to enjoy romantic comedies and romantic novels, while men are more likely to enjoy action, violence, etc.

            1. That chimp behavior was seen in ONE community only, not in the whole species. Even the authors said we should focus on learning, not in innate biology (convergent evolution instead of the common ancestor idea).

              The job preferences of men and women are not “well established”. The research done by Lippa is barely descriptive and it covers only 50 years. As you should know, human history didn’t start in 1970. Before that, women worked in manual jobs while men died in wars. Even in the URSS women were highly involved in STEM fields.

              I enjoy action & romantic movies. What is my sex?

              1. “That chimp behavior was seen in ONE community only” – false. The preference of male primates for play that involves movement and female primates for play that involves parenting has been replicated in many communities and in different species. Evidence: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bm9xXyw2f7g&ab_channel=BBC; Paper on wild chimps: Sex differences in chimpanzees’ use of sticks as play objects resemble those of children; https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982210014491?via%3Dihub;

                “As you should know, human history didn’t start in 1970. Before that, women worked in manual jobs while men died in wars. Even in the URSS women were highly involved in STEM fields.” – yes, for most of human history, people didn’t have any freedom to choose their careers. When they are given that freedom, the data shows that men tend to choose things-oriented careers, while women tend to choose people-oriented careers. The sex differences are larger for more gender-egalitarian countries, which suggests that when choices are given, people choose what is consistent with their innate preferences.

                “I enjoy action & romantic movies. What is my sex?” – it’s impossible to know, since preferences are normal distributions with some overlap between the sexes. I never claimed *only* women enjoy romantic movies, I claimed they would be more likely to enjoy them in the population distribution.

      2. Yes. In that case, it’s allowed to acknowledge the data, but you are limited in suggesting possibles causes or publishing research on possible biological causes. In other cases of disparities, regarding groups higher on the victim hierarchy, not even mentioning the data will be allowed. Presentation of data on the massive overrepresentation of African American males as perpetrators of violent crime will not be published, even of you suggest that the cause is poverty/racism.

        By the way, there are good arguments for an at least partly cultural cause or mediator for the disparities in in occupational choice in white collar jobs by sex: The difference between the sexes is much larger in “Western”, especially Germanic derived cultures, than in all others. I personally find the oft repeated mantra that the reason for the greater personality and occupational choice differences between the sexes in WEIRD cultures is that women in these cultures are particularly free to follow their biological inclinations self-serving and unconvincing. Nobody forces upper middle class Turkish women to become engineers, yet in far larger numbers than in the “West”, they do. My (Turkish-born) husband studied computer science and physics in Germany many decades ago. Almost all of his females classmates were the children of immigrants to Germany from non-Western countries.
        So in this case I disagree with Pinker on the causes of the disparity, but to censure such ideas in scientific articles is very wrong. An editor/reviewer might ask the authors to clearly acknowledge that the conclusion doesn’t follow from the data and is conjecture/hypothesis, but nothing more.

    1. Great article by a great thinker: the Pinker.
      I’m mildly jealous of his analytical and writing skills, but then, it is kind of a high bar.

  4. It now seems clear that for an academic to remain upon reproach is to avoid in writing or utterance anything that can cause “harm”, meaning potentially hurting feelings to anyone or any group, any time or anywhere, except perhaps Jews and Israel. This has just become readily apparent in the field of history. James Sweet is the president of the American Historical Association, which publishes the most prestigious journal in history, The American Historical Review. On the Association’s website he has posted an essay dealing with a trip to Africa he has made. He is a specialist in African history. In the essay, he pointed out inaccuracies about the role of Africans in the slave trade. This didn’t sit well with those that deny that Africans were complicit in the slave trade. The twitter mob descended on Sweet with a fury. As a result, like a whipped dog cowering in the corner, Sweet groveled as fast as he could, begging for forgiveness. The attack on Sweet was disgusting; his response even more so. He now hopes to “redeem” himself.

    Here is his article and apology.
    https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/september-2022/is-history-history-identity-politics-and-teleologies-of-the-present

    1. “….the American Historical Association, which publishes the most prestigious journal in history, The American Historical Review.”

      I admit it, I giggled at the phrasing..

    2. In the appendix of “Slavery and Social Death”, Orlando Patterson has pages of extraordinary tables showing in detail where slavery has existed and who the enslavers were.

      It’s stunning to see the tables related to sub-Saharan Africa.

  5. Chief editors of science journals seem to compete to virtual signal their woke bona fides loudest: Holden Thorp (Science), Stavroula Kousta (NHB), and Laura Helmuth (SciAm).

    Authoritarian power games…

  6. It might be worth looking into the identities of the termites who are eating away at the concept of scientific publication. In my long research career with publication of many papers, a couple of times I ran into and corrected a comical mistake in the editing process: an editor at a journal had made a minor change which was scientifically illiterate (in one case mathematically nonsensical). Both occasions seemed to be the work of junior editorial staff who knew little about the subject of the paper being prepared for publication, and about science in general. Perhaps Nature Human Behavior is richly endowed with editorial staff of this sort.

    1. As an unpaid peer reviewer of articles in some scientific journals in my field (in a previous life, I would not do that anymore, there is a lot of work going into a serious review, but as a young researcher I was flattered by the honour), I sometimes have some doubts. Was I too strict? Or in some more cases not strict enough? I’m sometimes bothered by these questions, but I would not say it pesters me on a daily basis.
      However, ‘dignity’, ‘harm’ , let alone ‘potential harm’ was never in the picture. How can evaluating the quality of, say, immunostaining of some lesions possibly cause ‘harm’?
      I don’t know, but I’m sure those ridiculous pecksniffers would find something. Note, I was never informed about the race, ethnicity or sex of the contributors -as should be-, their names and even institutions were systematically blotted out. To be honest, in such limited fields I could sometimes guess who the authors were, so maybe not completely blinded.
      Although, after actual publication, there were some surprises there.

  7. I actually have a problem with the title. Science doesn’t have to respect anything except the truth. The fact that both the Left and the Right have problems with evolution because it treads upon their ideologies is a sign that science itself continues to be under siege.

  8. I realize that my hunch in comment #8 was already answered by Roz in comments #3 and #7. So, the termites are not junior but rather senior editorial staff! How is it possible that the editor of a journal with “Nature” in its name has an advanced degree not in a science but rather in English? How widespread is this peculiar misalignment? One might look forward to literary journals under the editorship of mechanical engineers, or medical journals supervised by musicologists. But something tells me that the misalignment goes only one way, which of course explains the prevalence of woke verbiage in the editorial offices.

    1. “How is it possible that the editor of a journal with “Nature” in its name has an advanced degree not in a science but rather in English?”

      First, I agree with your sentiment — it seems like an odd choice. But, it might be worth mentioning that this a journal focusing on “behavior,” not biology, and her PhD is listed as English and Psycholinguistics — and she did 4 post-doc years on ” the psychological and neural underpinnings of language and semantic knowledge at University College London,” so she might have some direct experience with research on behavior. As a more general critique, my own impression is that a lot of behavioral science research is weak on biology, so her position might be symptomatic of a wider problem.

    2. My stepbrother has a science degree and journalism degree and works at an engineering publication. He’s well aware of the problem that most journalists do not have a scientific background, which leads him to delete most of the resumes that come his way.

      He said the salary level of those with science degrees is much higher than those with English degrees. Publications might be incentivized who they hire based on that as well.

  9. “In science, ideology tends to corrupt; absolute ideology [corrupts] absolutely”
    -Robert Nisbet

    I happened upon this quote this evening, which appears under a chapter heading in Siddhartha Mukherjee‘s excellent The Emperor of All Maladies.

    Thought it was apt! Not sure when Nisbet said it, but he died in 1996.

  10. “In some cases, however, potential harms to the populations studied may outweigh the benefit of publication.”

    /facepalm

    /headdesk

    Apart from the excellent points Jerry already made, what happens if “harms” to different groups collide?

    Let’s you’re a sociologist who finds that women in traditional societies with rigid gender roles are more likely to show symptoms of depression than women in more small-l liberal societies. But traditional societies are more likely to include predominantly people of color and/or Muslims, so if you publish this research, you are racist and Islamophobic. However, if you hide this result, are you not aiding misogyny? What to do, what to do? Irresistible force, meet immovable object.

  11. Steven Pinker on Tw1773r :

    “Nature Human Behavior is no longer a peer-reviewed journal but an enforcer of political creed. I won’t referee, publish, or cite […]”

    (My link is atrociously long, and Tw1773r win’t let me just copy paste so I transcribed the Tw337).

  12. Gotta love the title: “Science must respect the dignity and rights of all humans.” As always, the arrogant insinuation that such social awareness is a *new* thing, and anyone opposing Wokeness must therefore favor bigotry.

  13. The “Culture of Offendedness” strikes again. I find this referent preferable to wokedness with its association with trumpedness.

  14. All the ‘Nature’ titles seem to be owned and published by the Springer conglomerate. ‘Nature’ itself has form when it comes to peddling woke irrelevance. I don’t suppose it’s worth bombarding Springer with complaints about the systematic failure of their publications to treat science properly? No, I thought not.

    Forget ‘Nature’. Browse ‘Quanta’ instead: https://www.quantamagazine.org/

  15. This new article in Nature Human Behavior Is well-intentioned,… but goes way over the top….

    This is basically the mania of social justice wokeness in a nutshell. Somehow these people with consistently poor reasoning skills are increasingly in charge of everything.

  16. Given that, at least in NZ and I presume elsewhere, research often requires human ethics approval, a remit that seems to be constantly expanding to things such as “research integrity”, we won’t have to worry about journal rejections as the research will be killed before it starts. This of course will get little exposure being internal committees operating behind closed doors. Such bodies tend to attract more than their fair share of the woke.

  17. “Yes, there is true hateful speech, like “Jews are innately acquisitive””
    – what is hateful about that? It’s pointing out a trait of a group. Whether it’s rightly or wrongly applied, or even meant in spite, is irrelevant to what the 3 words themselves convey. The words ‘are innately acquisitive’ to me simply isn’t ‘hateful’. For sure it implies greed and selfishness, negative connotations, but ‘hate’? No.

  18. Just been rereading Johnthan Rausch’s Kindly Inquisitors.
    Wow!
    Did he ever get this right – even the specific issues like this.
    And yet – it just keeps coming – anyone see what can stop it?

  19. Given these guidelines, how would the scientific community investigate something like monkeypox? Could the results be published in this journal, one that ostensibly focuses on the underpinnings of human behavior and yet disallows the reporting of differences between social, economic, cultural, or biological groups that might be considered unfavorable or harmful? Would the journal allow something like the following to be published? If it was so important that it had to be published, I imagine the journal would airbrush the inconvenient blemishes.

    Benjamin Ryan’s recent article entitled “You Are Being Misled About Monkeypox.”

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/07/18/monkeypox-gay-men-deserve-unvarnished-truth/

    This is behind a paywall so I’ll quote extensively for those without a subscription.

    Ryan points out that contrary to the evidence, politicians, public health experts and the media have characterized monkeypox as a pathogen of equal opportunity.

    “This broad-strokes maxim — that everyone on Earth is susceptible to this troubling viral infection — might be factual on its surface. But it is so egregiously misleading it amounts to misinformation.”

    Public health experts are performing this contortion in a laudable effort to avoid stigmatizing the group most at risk.

    “… But as these public health experts know well, epidemiology is less concerned with whether someone could contract an infection; instead, the much more vital questions focus on which groups of people are most likely to be exposed to a pathogen, to contract it and why. In public health statistics, this is the study of relative risk.

    By reducing monkeypox risk to a simplistic binary equation, public health leaders are prioritizing fighting stigma over their duty to directly inform the public about the true contours and drivers of this global outbreak. In particular, they are failing to properly convey the seriousness of this burgeoning crisis to gay and bisexual men.

    Here is what we can discern from data collected about monkeypox so far: This viral outbreak isn’t just mostly occurring among men who have sex with men. The confirmed cases, at least to date, have consistently almost entirely occurred among this demographic, which accounts for 96 percent or more of diagnoses where data are available.

    An uncomfortable truth, one documented in peer-reviewed papers, is that sexual behaviors and networks specific to gay and bisexual men have long made them more likely to acquire various sexually transmitted infections compared with heterosexual people. This includes not only HIV, but also syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, hepatitis B and sexually transmitted hepatitis C.”

    From my understanding of the journal’s guidelines, this article and the research it references would never appear in Nature Human Behavior.

  20. Why is it, that every time the left wants to censor speech or limit our rights in some other way, the critics always starts with ensuring us that the censors have good intentions? What’s the evidence for their good intentions? None! They are trying to enforce an ideology on us, and they know that the ideology cannot survive scrutiny, so they try to eliminate scrutiny. How is that well intended?

  21. As we all know, “hate speech” has such wide interpretation that it’s almost useless.

    Writing from Scandinavia where we have had hate speech laws for decades, it doesn’t look that way. For example, in Sweden 2012 there were 5518 hate crimes reported to the police and of course that is just a small proportion of the problem. There have been a number of convictions through the years.

    1. Say more. Why does the reporting of hate crimes and a number of convictions show evidence of usefulness? By way of analogy, the Volstead Act criminalized alcohol sales in the 1920s in the USA, and there were a number of bootleggers reported and convicted. Yet few argue that Prohibition was a success.

  22. “This new article in Nature Human Behavior Is well-intentioned, aiming to purge bigotry from science…”

    This is wrong, there is nothing well intentioned (unless you share the nihilistic values of the “woke”) about this slow-march through our institutions. It’s ultimate aim is nothing less than undoing the social consequences of the scientific revolution, which established the scientific/analytic type as the arbiter of “truth” in our society, and returning the priestly/intuitive type to the top of the heap. Their method is clear: the slow insinuation of their acolytes into all the consequential positions of power in our institutions (political, academic, and scientific) and then the massive inflation of administration and bureaucracy so that their enemies are simply overwhelmed by sheer numbers (they’ve been using this trick since Ancient Egypt). This stage is mostly completed at this point; it’s going to get much worse very soon.

    The great mistake scientists (i.e. Dawkins, Harris) have made is that they believe that in effectively banishing the ability of the priest to make supernatural claims (usually for authority, i.e. “God says…”) that they have permanently depotentiated the threat posed by them. The reality is unfortunately the opposite: having now mastered the language of science/reason they are capable of telling even more sophisticated lies and have even managed to convince a significant number of scientists to enthusiastically defend, if not embrace, an ideology that will effectively displace them (i.e. observe certain well known scientists that promote the 2+2 = 5 nonsense). There is a reason that priests came to dominate most societies that have existed on Earth.

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