Jonathan Rauch: Should academic journals appoint themselves social justice gatekeepers?

September 21, 2022 • 9:30 am

The piece below from Nature Human Behavior, published in August, calls for the editorial censorship of scientific research that, though its results may be correct or even important, could be “harmful” to society. You can access it by clicking on the screenshot, or getting a free pdf here):

I managed to put up a short piece highlighting its flaws, and pointed out this reproving tweet from Steve Pinker:

But now there have been two longer and better critiques of the Nature Human Behavior op-ed, critiques that are both devastating. The first, which I mentioned in a Hili post, was by Bo Winegard at Quillette: “The fall of Nature“. I’ll leave you to read that for yourself, but it’s mentioned in the second critique, the piece by Jonathan Rauch below originally published in FIRE. Now it’s in Persuasion, and you can access it there (for free) by clicking on the screenshot.

Rauch is a respected  scholar who works for the Brookings Institute, is a contributing editor of The Atlantic, and an author who produced a spate of books, among them his superb 1995 book defending freedom of thought and speech, Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought. Rauch considers, properly, that the Nature article is indeed an attack on free thought, but also a censorious attempt to squelch scientific research.


Rauch’s opening question is this, and you can guess how he answers it:

Should academic journals appoint themselves social justice gatekeepers?

First, Rauch’s precis of the Nature article:

Nature Human Behaviour, a respected member of the Springer stable, thinks so [i.e., journals should be social justice gatekeepers[. “Science has for too long been complicit in perpetuating structural inequalities and discrimination in society,” the editors declare in a recent manifesto. “With this guidance, we take a step towards countering this.”

The editors assure us that “advancing knowledge and understanding is a fundamental public good.” Okay. They say that research should avoid harming the individuals it studies; not a controversial proposition. But then, in a move that deserves to be very controversial, they broaden their definition of unacceptable harm to include negative social consequences for studied groups.

Researchers should “minimize as much as possible…risks of harm to the studied groups in the public sphere,” they say (my italics). “Research may—inadvertently—stigmatize individuals or human groups,” they add (again, my italics). “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.”

The phrases I italicized do a lot of work. A researcher might not have a discriminatory bone in her body, and she might take exquisite care to avoid biasing her research. Her evidence may be solid, her methods sound, and her conclusions actually true. Nonetheless, the editors may reject her article, require revisions, or even retract and repudiate it if they believe it “undermines the dignity or rights of specific groups; assumes that a human group is superior or inferior over [sic] another simply because of a social characteristic; includes hate speech or denigrating images; or promotes privileged, exclusionary perspectives.”

In essence, the journal is saying, “We will not publish (or may censor) any article that is seen as offensive, harmful, or a manifestation of “hate speech”.  Indeed, they exlicitly mention “hate speech”, and “privileged exclusionary perspectives,” and variants of “harm” appear twice in the subtitle.

You know the problem with this: many scientific findings can be (and increasingly have been) interpreted as offensive. But how many people have to be offended before the journal squelches an article? One? Ten? In fact, journals have no business policing the social implications of submitted articles. If that job is to be done, it should be done by reviewers pointing out unwarranted statements, not censorious editors enacting a progressive agenda. Rauch quotes Winegard here:

In Quillette, the social psychologist Bo Winegard does a masterly job dissecting [the journal’s statement]. He takes note of the guidance’s terminal vagueness. “Ambiguity is piled upon ambiguity to expand the capricious purview of the censor,” he writes. “It does not require clairvoyance to predict that these criteria will not be consistently applied.” He notes the tendentious ideological assumptions embedded in the document. He identifies some of the legitimate research that could be squelched and chilled.

Findings about group differences—sexual, racial, cultural, and so on—would be suspect. Winegard notes that a paper finding homosexual men to be more promiscuous on average than heterosexual men might be deemed unacceptably stigmatizing, even if the findings “might…lead to a reduction in the rate of sexually transmitted infection”—something the editors would have no way to anticipate.

A biologist might feel inhibited about stating that humans are sexually dimorphous, that male and female are biologically distinguishable, or that sex differences exist at all. Some of my own writing could be suspect, for instance on the value to children of two-parent families and the dangers of radical gender ideology. As Winegard points out, the guidelines are so vague and so broad that they are bound to be chilling.

I could add to this list research on “maternal instincts” (sexist), any work that deals with human ethnic groups, including describing genetic differentiation for any traits (racist), taking “other ways of knowing” to task (colonialist), promoting evolutionary psychology (offends the “blank slaters”), attempting to say anything about the origin of recent human remains, including their sex (they could have been transgender)—the list goes on and on.  As Rauch notes, there is no reason for editors to proclaim themselves gatekeepers of research, for their instincts will be to bow more to social pressure than to scientific truth or importance.

But Rauch’s main aim is to dismantle what he sees as the three most powerful arguments for the kind of censorship advocated by Nature. I’ll put the arguments for editorial censorship in bold and then give a summary of Rauch’s rebuttal:

1).  “Scientists and journals always consider social impact when they make research decisions. We’re just doing it explicitly.” Rauch admits that the premise is true, though I’d disagree based on my own research. Did I consider social impact when I studied migration behavior in fruit flies, or why, if only one sex is sterile or inviable in animal hybrids, it’s almost invariably the sex with two different sex chromosomes?  I don’t see how. The vetting of social consequences, as described by Rauch, is far less ubiquitous than he implies:

Every day, researchers, journals, and grant-makers consider the wellbeing of society, including effects on marginalized groups, when they decide what to work on, what to publish, and what to fund; if they did not, science would become sociopathic and reprehensible. I myself once urged a prominent researcher to excise a book chapter that, even if it were empirically sound, would irresponsibly damage race relations and his own reputation.

Yes, the NIH in particular looks for work with consequences on human health (though they funded my work for decades), but the vast bulk of work supported by groups like the National Science Foundation is pure research, not designed to affect human society or even human welfare—beyond the benefits of satisfying curiosity and understanding our Universe. But even assuming Rauch is right, we are already doing what the editors want to take on themselves:

A dilemma, here, is fundamental. How can science consider social responsibility without politicizing research? This problem is hard. Over the centuries, science has worked out an imperfect but very functional answer: subsidiarity.

What he means is this:

For the most part, we trust trained professionals to make socially responsible research decisions. For the most part, they do. Questions about social harm and social justice are hashed out in conversations and debates among members of the research community, not settled peremptorily by a handful of editors.

In this disaggregated, decentralized system, journals play the essential role of middlemen. They assess research’s importance, vet its quality, and, on approval, usher it into the marketplace of ideas. Of course, they can’t be perfectly apolitical, because they’re human; but, traditionally, they aspire to be ideologically neutral so that the political inclinations of editors don’t supersede the scientific expertise of researchers. We want them to act as quality controls, not political checkpoints.

By explicitly making social justice an element of editorial policy, NHB breaks with this tradition. To the extent it does so, the results will be bad. However professional and well intentioned NHB’s editors may be, they are not qualified to decide on society’s behalf whether research is socially harmful or desirable. In fact, they have no idea how a piece of research will ramify.

Of course reviewers often aren’t qualified, either (pure science has a way of ramifying in unexpected directions), but I’d trust reviewers rather than editors, just as I’d trust faculty to choose who to hire rather than have job applications first vetted by DEI committees for their commitment to diversity and inclusion. And remember, if research results are misappropriated to create bigotry, that is not the responsibility of the researchers but of the appropriators.

2).  “We’re aware of the danger of politicization but we won’t succumb. As our editorial says: ‘Ensuring that ethically conducted research on individual differences and differences among human groups flourishes, and no research is discouraged simply because it may be socially or academically controversial, is as important as preventing harm.’”

There’s that subjectively determined “harm” again. Part of Rauch’s response:

Good luck, NHB [Nature Human Behavior], with your good intentions. We have 300 years of scientific tradition that helps researchers and editors understand what constitutes scientific merit. We know that Bayesian reasoning is more reliable than cherry-picking; that double-blind controlled trials are better than convenience samples; that equating correlation with causality is an error; and much, much more.

“Preventing harm,” by contrast, is a completely and inherently subjective criterion. The new policy invites activists and interest groups to veto “harmful” research. They will accept the invitation, claiming that whatever research offends them is oppressive, unequal, stigmatizing, traumatic, racist, colonialist, homophobic, transphobic, violent, and—you get the idea.

When they demand the rejection or retraction of whatever research offends them, NHB, having committed to preventing “harm,” will have nothing definite to fall back on. If the editors don’t cave in right away, they will soon.

Moreover, NHB’s guidance patently is political. Consider this criterion for problematic content: “Submissions that embody singular, privileged perspectives, which are exclusionary of a diversity of voices in relation to socially constructed or socially relevant human groupings, and which purport such perspectives to be generalizable and/or assumed.” If you can figure out what this gobbledygook means, you are smarter than I am. What it does unambiguously convey, however, is woke-left identity politics. The editors might as well post a sign that says, “Conservatives Not Welcome.”

3).  “Well, don’t you agree that science has shown itself to be biased in ways that harm marginalized social groups? Shouldn’t we do something about that?”

Rauch’s answer:  “Yes, and yes. But I have a better plan: more and better science.” He mentions one example how the advance of research eliminated “science” that harmed marginalized groups: the change from characterizing homosexuality as a “disorder” to “one of a variety of human sexual behaviors not indicative of mental disturbance”. (Rauch notes that he’s gay.) Research showed that randomized psychological assessments conducted by Evelyn Hooker couldn’t find any aspect of personality that distinguished gays from straights. After that result, the American Psychiatric Association decided to remove homosexuality from its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as a psychiatric disorder.


It was an example of science’s most unique strength: its ability to self-correct.

A question I ask myself: In 1956—when it was a given that homosexuals are perverts who pose a danger to themselves and society—would Evelyn Hooker’s research have passed the equivalent of NHB’s guidance? Would the journal’s editors have published it? Or would they have smothered it because of the “social harm” it might cause?

In the end, Rauch makes a counteroffer to the journal, and the last paragraph, which I’ve put in bold, is a corker:

Here is my counteroffer to Nature Human Behaviour.

Understand that it is not your job to stop science from “perpetuating structural inequalities and discrimination in society.” Go back to doing what you know how to do. Understand yourselves not as riding astride the stream of research, judging what does and does not advance justice or harm society, but as humbly serving a community of scholars who collectively have infinitely more knowledge, wisdom, and experience than you do.

Allow your thousands of researchers, reviewers, and readers to make their own various and diverse determinations of how research might ultimately benefit or harm groups, individuals, and the public good. Accept that it is arrogant and self-important for anyone, including yourselves, to set themselves up as visionaries capable of prejudging the scientific process. Apply the non-political standards of scientific merit and editorial excellence which have been honed over centuries.

Above all, remember that by far the greatest engine of social justice, human rights, and equality has been the advancement of knowledge, and the rolling back of ignorance, by a community of truth-seekers empowered to follow evidence wherever it leads. If you care about making society better and fairer, you will serve that community, not appoint yourselves to direct it.

Believe me, it’s no picnic to stand by, after a long career, and see my beloved science attacked by all manner of authoritarians who want to police research and inject politics into STEM, substituting “correct ideology” for “merit” and “scientific importance.” There’s almost nothing I can do to stop this juggernaut propelled largely by the Authoritarian Left, except to pump out pathetic posts like this one—posts read largely by those who already agree, and are doomed to rejection by ideologues determined to stick their progressive noses into the scientific tent.

And, increasingly, it is those ideologues who are the gatekeepers of science: journals, scientific societies, and even those scientists themselves who feel they’re doing the Lord’s work by infusing our field with wokeness.  My only hope is that the many people who disagree with the authoritarians—and I know from private communications that they are many—will find a way to speak up against the madness. It’s a sign of the times that scientists—scientists!—who are brought up to question accepted wisdom, are too sheepish to oppose the crumbling of their discipline.

21 thoughts on “Jonathan Rauch: Should academic journals appoint themselves social justice gatekeepers?

  1. One should always be mindful of Gad Saad’s argument that scientific research (and scholarship in general) should always be deontological, not consequentialist. His Parasitic Mind is well worth reading indeed.

  2. Here’s the thing, if you are only going to publish studies that agree with a previously determined position, why publish them at all? Just publish that position over and over again. Or don’t. It reminds me of the story of the burning of the library at Alexandria. Someone asked Omar, the Arab conqueror of Alexandria, what they should do with the library. He said burn it. Either the books in it contradict the Koran and are blasphemous, or they agree with it and are redundant.

    1. I’m quite sure that I’m not telling you anything you don’t know, but it’s all part of a larger ecosystem. Keep publishing these studies, so they can keep having news articles and pieces on TV/Youtube/wherever talking about these amazing new findings, and academics can continue to push the “new” studies demonstrating how correct they are in their political positions. Everything feeds into everything else, producing institutional power with core messages to be fed to students, academics, activists, and then the public as a whole.

  3. Powerful pieces, both yours and Rauch’s. I have nothing to add except my thanks for being a consistent and important (yes, you are) voice for reason and science.

  4. “There’s almost nothing I can do to stop this juggernaut propelled largely by the Authoritarian Left except to pump out pathetic posts like this one—posts read largely by those who already agree.”

    There is most certainly nothing pathetic about this post. Rauch is a brilliant writer, and this post pointed me to new and better ways of arguing these positions. Thanks.

  5. “There’s almost nothing I can do to stop this juggernaut propelled largely by the Authoritarian Left except to pump out pathetic posts like this one—posts read largely by those who already agree.”

    So, some scientific journals impose censorship.
    Y o u T u b e imposes political orthodoxy censorship.
    Social media impose political orthodoxy censorship.
    P a y P a l arbitrarily closes accounts for whatever reasons.
    W i k i p e d i a starts editing articles for political acceptability.
    Perhaps T r u m p being denied access to social media was a wake up call?

  6. People need to fight these journal administrators. They are not qualified to be ideological gatekeepers, and should not have that authority. By restricting research to politically acceptable topics we risk not doing research that needs desperately to be done. Science is inherently self-correcting, and we should let the process work.

    The only reason for me to comment on this is to make my voice heard. Silence is not an option.

  7. Nature Human Behavior is of course part of a large ecosystem of related journals, topping off at Nature magazine. That is arguably the #1 science journal.
    We have seen how these social changes has crept into all areas of academia, from their bases in the humanities. I see no reason why this sort of gatekeeping would not make inroads into the editorial boards of Nature journals and well into other sciences. Of course it has already done that, with invented controversies about biological sex, etc., but I mean we could see a lot more of that.

  8. Ask any of the people responsible for this “ethics guidance” and they would surely object to the way the NRA has successfully lobbied to freeze federal funding of gun violence research, for fear that such research would “harm” their ability to sell guns. And yet, this is essentially the same thing. Or at least it’s a different scheme to obtain the same result.

  9. NHB’s manifesto starts off with: “Science has for too long been complicit in perpetuating structural inequalities and discrimination in society,” This is a perfect example of wokespeak, finding “complicity” in the use of knowledge. Cruder examples abound, for example denunciations of STEM in general because colonialism and slave ships made use of engineering derived from the principles of Physics, and so on.

    What academic subjects are not “complicit” in the evils charged against European civilization? Why, the answer, of course, is the subjects of the journals which accepted the Boghossian/Lindsay/Pluckrose hoax manuscripts: i.e., subjects in which the most obvious hoax cannot be distinguished from a masterpiece, and in which the purported “theories” lead to nothing usable, for any purpose, in the real world.

    Their discourse itself brings up an issue of complicity. For the last generation or so, official universities have been complicit in conferring respectability on exactly this kind of verbiage and make-believe scholarship. It is as if, 40 years ago, they carefully set up programs, departments, and journals of astrology, dianetics, and voodoo. And now, graduates of this category of academic endeavor are turning up in the editorial offices of magazines and even some scientific journals. There should have been better quality control in academia, applying simple logical principles, a generation ago.

    1. Yes. Leading with “Science has for too long been complicit…” really pi**ed me off when I read it. Being “complicit” means being an accessory to a crime or injustice, as if science is in some way rotten or corrupt. That is simply a lie. And why would a science journal make such a statement? Do the editors really hate themselves and the institution they represent that much? If so, they should leave the field and join a political action committee.

      1. “Do the editors really hate themselves and the institution they represent that much?” The answer is not exactly yes, but rather that self-flagellation is one of the performance rituals of the great awokening. I think it goes back to the takeover of
        literature departments by postmodernists, who did indeed seem to hate literature; they applied the concept of “text” as a excuse to deconstruct everything in sight. Now they are busy deconstructing away, like termites, in publishing and thus also in the outer precincts of STEM. When they reach engineering, we will get to
        see buildings being deconstructed while they are constructed, which should be fun.

        1. I agree that it’s a performance ritual, which suggests to me that it’s insincere (which, to me, makes it even worse). Your analysis of the history makes a lot of sense.

  10. All this has most probably come about because genetics research has shown significant differences in specific human characteristics across racial groups. These are hard issues, particularly in medicine and education.

    1. I have a different hypothesis. It has come about now, rather than at some other time, because of the recent changes to how the related topics are presented at Wikipedia. It’s well-established that Wikipedia lies upstream of public and academic discourse in most areas. The Quillette article about these changes provided several examples of areas where that’s occurred, but here are two others from the time since that article was published:

      This study found that Wikipedia influences legal decisions by judges:
      And this one found that Wikipedia changed the definition of homosexuality from from meaning same-sex attraction to meaning attraction to people of the same gender identity, a few years before the same change occurred in public and academic attitudes about how homosexuality is defined.

      I don’t know what it’s actually possible to do about this problem, but it’s at least valuable to be aware of the role Wikipedia has played in causing it.

      1. I think the ongoing changes in Wikipedia are also due to the causes I mentioned. The woke crowd is attempting to change reality. It won’t work in the long run.

  11. I guess my problem with this discussion is that implies that journals used to be neutral and were never gatekeepers for normative morality etc until now. I don’t think that holds up to any kind of scrutiny

  12. We can imagine a thought experiment: a researcher discovers an infallible cure for cancer, but it only works in white men. Will it get published?
    My view is that such a result is probably withing a few CRISPR manoeuvres of working for all, and publication to allow that extension of the research would be a matter of urgency. But would our woke gatekeepers permit it? Would a biopharm company be allowed to exploit it?

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