Nature flagellates itself for creating “harms” and being “damaging” in its past publications

September 29, 2022 • 12:00 pm

It seems that science journals are in a race to see which can be the most penitential for apologizing for past publications that don’t comport with modern morality.  To use my Cultural Revolution analogy, they are competing to see who can hang the biggest “I was a bad and hurtful journal” sign around their necks.  Nature just entered the competition with the article below, which you can read for free.

It seems that the journal’s biggest no-no, and cause for apology, was publishing the work of Francis Galton (1822-1911), a Victorian polymath who made big contributions in statistics, anthropology, forensics (he invented a way of classifying fingerprints), and other areas. But he was also an advocate of eugenics, and his name has been removed from buildings and other venues in the last couple of years.  Although Galton’s views are abhorrent to modern sensibility, none of them, so far as I know, actually led to any eugenic actions that wouldn’t have been carried out without his writings (Hitler didn’t need Galton, and eugenics wasn’t practiced in England).

Though the word “damaging”, referring to Nature’s publications, is used 9 times, and they evoke the “harm” of their journal 6 times, it all seems to me a bit hyperbolic. Of course Galton was a racist, but is this an accurate statement?:

Galton’s scientifically inaccurate ideas about eugenics had a huge, damaging influence that the world is still grappling with. The idea that some groups — people of colour or poor people, for example — were inferior has fuelled irreparable discrimination and racism. Nature published several papers by Galton and other eugenicists, thus giving a platform to these views.

Irreparable discrimination and racism? I hope not! But let’s accept that Galton was a eugenicist, which he was, and that his views may have influenced other eugenicists, and move on to other mea culpas:

This is not just a problem in Nature’s deeper history. In more recent years, we have also, to our shame, published some articles that were offensive or destructive, or attracted criticism for being overly elitist. “The scientific journal, back in the day, was the mouthpiece to a very privileged and highly exclusive sector of society, and it is actually continuing to do the same thing today,” says Subhadra Das, a science historian and writer in London who has researched scientific racism and eugenics.

Since they cite none of these articles (“elitism”, really?), I can’t judge this statement.  Yes, Nature is considered one of the two most prestigious scientific journals in the world (Science is the other), but is that the kind of “privilege” and “exclusivity” they’re talking about? I don’t know, because they give no examples. (Save for Galton’s papers, citations of transgressing articles are scant—a common problem with this form of apology.)

There will be some redacting of the past, too:

We know that Nature’s archives contain numerous items that are harmful and can be upsetting. But, like other scholarly publishers, we think it is important to keep all of our content accessible, because it is part of the scientific and historical record. It is important for researchers today and in the future to study and learn from what happened in the past. That said, we are developing a way to alert readers that our archive contains articles that do not represent our current values and would be unacceptable to publish today.

What are “our current values”, and what if they change? Can’t we count on the readers to know whether an article is acceptable or unacceptable to publish today? Does Nature really need a Pecksniff to trawl through its archives to single out offensive articles and highlight them? And who will be the Pecksniff, the person who enforces “our current values”?

They don’t neglect colonialism, either, though again no examples are given:

The journal matured as Britain became the biggest colonial power in history — by 1919, the British Empire spanned roughly one-quarter of the world’s land and population. In their contributions, many scientists editing and writing for Nature endorsed the views of white, European superiority that drove this empire building. An air of imperiousness, imperialism, sexism and racism permeates many articles in Nature’s historical archive.

As it does all of British literature from that era! Who will apologize for that? And is there a need to?

. . . Nature’s archives also include harmful contributions from the fields of ecology, evolution, anthropology and ethnography, which were inextricably linked with colonial expansion. Another 1921 editorial reflected imperialist and racist views, reporting on a session at a meeting of what was then the British Association for the Advancement of Science “devoted to the discussion of the ways and means by which the science of anthropology might be made of greater practical utility in the administration of the Empire, particularly in relation to the government of our subject and backward races”. There are numerous other examples in which Nature published offensive, injurious and destructive views, cloaked in the veil of science.

They do mention one book review that was pretty sexist, written by editor Richard Gregory (1919-1939), and two antisemitic articles by Johannes Stark, but eve back then Nature criticized the anti-Semitism:

In the 1930s, the journal printed two antisemitic articles by Johannes Stark, a physicist, who wrote of the “damaging influence of Jews in German science”. At the time, Nature had taken a strong position in opposition to the rise of Nazis in Germany, which eventually led to the journal being banned there. Nature implied in an accompanying article that it had invited one of Stark’s contributions to show readers how shocking his words were, but it nevertheless exposed a wider audience to antisemitic views.

So is that a net bad or a net good? Nature opposed the Nazis and highlighted one article that denigrated Jews, but only to show that it was “shocking”.  Is this something the journal needs to apologize for?

One more example, but the articles aren’t cited or linked, so we can’t judge for ourselves:

Nature has published hurtful articles even in the past few years. One was an inaccurate, naive editorial about memorials to historical figures who committed abhorrent acts in the name of science. The editorial was damaging to people of colour and minority groups, and the journal apologized for the article’s many faults. That experience exposed systemic problems at Nature that we are working to correct, including the lack of diversity among our editors and a failure to acknowledge the journal’s role in racism. The editorial you are reading is part of our attempt to acknowledge and learn from our troubled deep and recent past, understand the roots of injustice and work to address them as we aim to make the scientific enterprise open and welcoming to all.

So Nature has hung this big editorial sign around its neck, and promises to do better. But it’s already doing better, as are all science journals and science departments.  The question I am asking, I guess, is given that morality is improving over time, and has come a long way in the last hundred years, to what extent do we need to apologize for what was said by our predecessors? Yes, it’s fair to point out that bad things were done in the past, but how instructive is that since everyone now knows that racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry are wrong? And if they don’t, Nature’s apology won’t fix them

In the end, I see the Nature piece not as wholly performative, but nearly performative, since they are already policing themselves.

Matthew has a different take, as given in these tweets. He’s concerned with the fact that Nature, in going to an open-access policy, is now charging authors huge amounts of money merely to publish their articles. In other words, the journal may not be sexist or racist, but they are still money-gouging capitalists who impoverish scientific investigators.

This is from Nature’s 2020 announcement that it was going “open access”:

Publisher Springer Nature has announced how scientists can make their papers in its most selective titles free to read as soon as they are published — part of a long-awaited move to offer open-access publishing in the Nature family of journals.

From 2021, the publisher will charge €9,500, US$11,390 or £8,290 to make a paper open access (OA) in Nature and 32 other journals that currently keep most of their articles behind paywalls and are financed by subscriptions. It is also trialling a scheme that would halve that price for some journals, under a common-review system that might guide papers to a number of titles.

Soon you won’t have the option of paying: you will have to pay to have your articles published. This money will soon be coming out of the pockets of investigators—either out of their grants (funded by taxpayers) or out of their own pockets. And, as Matthew said, this policy is against the policy of diversity and openness favored by the journal, as it penalizes scientists with the least funding, more likely to be people of color or peoople from lower socioeconomic classes that could use their grants to do research instead of pay a journal exorbitant fees to publish their work.

In comment #3 below, Lysander calls our attention to the financial results of open-access publishing, embodied in this video:

40 thoughts on “Nature flagellates itself for creating “harms” and being “damaging” in its past publications

  1. I’m tempted to suggest that, if, after a deep trawl of Nature’s archives, that those examples are the worst they have come up with, then Nature’s back-story is not too bad. Picking two examples from the piece:

    “Galton defined eugenics as “the science which deals with all influences that improve and develop the inborn qualities of a race”. He said
    that “the aim of eugenics is to represent each class or sect by its best specimens, causing them to contribute more than their proportion to the next generation”.

    That is clearly about within-group variation, not between-group variation, so is not “racist” or any of the other identity-politics sins. [Nature declares these views to be “scientifically inaccurate”, but that’s wrong, they do actually work, as we know because they work for farming animals; they’re not scientifically wrong, they are just not how we want society to be.]

    And:

    Richard Gregory, who led the journal from 1919 to 1939, actively supported eugenics. He published editorials with objectionable and racist views, such as one in 1921 that stated that “the highly civilised races of Europe and America have centuries of development behind them”. It went on to say that “the less advanced races, even of parts of Europe, such as the Balkan Peninsula, are not likely to assimilate these ideals for some time to come”.

    That, to my reading, is pretty clearly culture-ist not “racist” (“assimilating ideas” is clearly about cultural change, not about genetic change), and it is indeed true that some nations have been more culturally/technologically advanced than others at different points of history.

    1. I was thinking the same thing. I read a lot of Margaret Sanger a few years ago while arguing with anti-abortionists. She did advocate, for a while, some forms of eugenics but only as a potential solution to the massive suffering of the poor and poc. She had no overlap with the Nazi misuse of such ideas and condemned them. She was also not a fan of abortion.
      There is a certain group of people in ascendancy today who seem wired to be unable and unwilling to try and comprehend the true meaning and intent behind people’s utterances.

  2. In its mea culpa, Nature acknowledges: ” An air of imperiousness, imperialism, sexism and racism permeates many articles in Nature’s historical archive.” The obvious solution, for Nature to cease publication forthwith. never seems to have occurred to them. Could the €9,500 publication charge have something to do with that?

  3. I’m clueless on I’m embedding links, so just search New Rule: A Unified Theory of Wokeness, Real Time w/Bill Maher.
    Nature would be good to take note of his definition of “Presentism”.

  4. I’ll also say how disappointed I was when I scrolled down after misreading the title of the post. I was hoping it was something new discovered about flagellates.

  5. How wrong was Galton? It is one thing to oppose eugenics for ethical reasons, but as Dawkins has repeatedly pointed out (to the detriment of his reputation) there is no reason why selective breeding of humans could not work.

      1. I’d love to see how a sperm bank would fare if it provided the potential recipients no educational attainment or occupation for the donors, let alone no health information or physical characteristics.

  6. “everyone now knows that racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry are wrong?” Everyone? That question mark in the quote is certainly warranted.
    Take the Woke, they appear pretty seduced by anti-Semitism (and, in fact, by racism and sexism too).
    Not to mention the Trumpists, they thrive on bigotry, their life-blood.
    Well, I guess the quote was rhetoric.

    1. Indeed, it is the wokest that tend to be the most anti-Jewish. They consider Jews “privileged” and “white”, and they hate Israel. In fact, several left-leaning student groups at Berkeley just declared they have forever banned “Zionist” speakers.

  7. Well, I for one am glad they won’t ever harm or damage anything else ever again. I’m really glad we had this talk, Nature. It takes a big kid to admit they were wrong. Now, Nature, how about you have a plate of warm chocolate chip cookies I just baked, and we’ll play your favorite board game together.

  8. I think a drinking game is in the offing: When you read a self-flagellating woke declaration, every time you are prompted to think, “Give me an example!” or “Where’s the evidence?”, have a shot of your favorite liqueur. You’ll probably be soused pretty quickly.

  9. I think their goal here is to increasingly discredit research on human biology and heredity in general. They are starting with obvious targets like Galton but soon the big journals will come after behavior genetics and psychiatric genetics. It’s a matter of time.

    1. This is already underway, with that screed against the whole subject of Human Genetics that Scientific American published in March of 2021. Its subtitle was: “The field began in part to support white supremacy—and it hasn’t fully shaken off that shameful heritage”. Our host deftly eviscerated the screed right here at WEIT. I sent
      a link to Jerry’s excellent critique to my old university department—and the link and Jerry’s essay itself were denounced by a departmental DEI Committee for the “harm” they were presumed to inflict on the usual imagined victims.

  10. When I see this stuff you (interestingly, thank you!) report – the whole woke Thing strikes me as a moral panic. Unlike, say, the Satanic Panic of the 80s, racism is a real thing of course, but in the past say 5 years all logic, rationality, and fact have gone out the window.
    Moral panic is the best way of framing much of this.
    D.A.
    NYC

  11. Do the editors realize how pathetic they sound? We were bad. We’re still sometimes bad. We’ll try to do better. To prove our contrition we’re even planning to publish an entire issue on our historical badness.

    The promised issue on how Nature might have contributed to racism might actually be interesting—if it ever appears; it was apparently planned for publication in 2020. Maybe they published this editorial simply because they felt guilty about not getting around to publishing the special issue they promised. Why not just publish the special issue and call it done? The handwringing in this editorial is just so degrading.

    I was hoping this post were about flagellates in nature and not about Nature’s flagellates.

  12. Jesus, the nonsense never ends and gets worse.

    But US$11,390 to publish open-access? I had no idea the fees would be that obscenely high.
    Good thing I cleverly designed my research career to never result in a Nature publication. I think I must be smarter than I think.

    1. Several points. First, there are good journals which are not prohibiitively expensive. Second, pay-to-publish, as opposed to other models of funding journals, is probably the worst way to do it: excludes poor authors, conflict of interest for the journal, etc. Third, arXiv is no longer needed to make stuff available, since these days disk space and internet bandwidth are extremely cheap. The advantage of arXiv is that it is a one-stop shop. People notice new papers in their field by looking at arXiv; many never bother with journals (but it does matter where something as published, as a filter for quality). Yes, an online journal shouldn’t need to re-invent the wheel and if everything is on arXiv anyway an overlay journal is a good idea. However, as mentioned above it is easy to publish the article oneself, independently of arXiv; https://www.scipost.org/ is open-access publishing done right. Fourth, arXiv is seriously broken. There is a major problem which has been building up for a while. Mostly by chance, I got on the receiving end of that. I have never encountered hate, arrogance, and incompetence anywhere in academia as bad as that of arXiv. http://www.astro.multivax.de:8000/helbig/research/publications/arxiv/why_no_arxiv.html

      1. Yes, there are other options besides arxiv that an overlay journal could use. I think that particular journal uses arxiv because arxiv is the default preprint repository for math these days.

        The main point is that if you are okay with not enforcing a uniform style/typesetting/etc for your journal, and you don’t do a print version of the journal, and you don’t have teams of salespeople and lawyers to hawk your product (and to coerce university libraries to pay for your journal packages), then it is pretty cheap to run one. And unless your area has enormous novel datasets that must be hosted along with the paper (e.g. machine learning), the hosting is trivial.

    1. Scientfic journals should not have a business model, they should be run by the major scientific societies as a community service. The running costs (reviewing papers, formatting and uploading pdfs onto a website) are actually minimal.

      1. Nature is not a community service: it is a commercial operation. It has to make a profit or at least generate enough revenue to cover its costs. I do not think they would be “minimal” as you seem to.

        So, I ask again. If it doesn’t charge somebody, how does it make money?

        1. It doesn’t make money. The journal I mentioned in the other comment started by Tim Gowers has a small grant to cover costs, but as he says in the post, once the grant runs out, they would charge authors a small amount (20 dollars or so) to cover the small costs of running it.

      2. I suspect the scientific societies see it the reverse. They need the profits from their journal to finance their society’s operations.

        The business model of the Internet is to just steal everything. It’s a tough act to follow.

  13. If the eugenics movement (and ‘movement’ it was: eugenics in it’s mildest form – encourage the fit to reproduce, not kill all the weaklings – was so commonly held to be a societal good at one time, it was practically universal among the intellectual class) did such harm, it did it by infecting the minds of its believers. Might I cheekily suggest that Galton was therefore a victim, deserving of sympathy and understanding? Were he still with us he would undoubtedly have seen the error of his ways and joined a class action suit against the Eugenics Society. This is victim blaming, pure and simple. He got taken in, fooled and misled, by a popular and fashionable belief, equivalent to – let me invent something – say, believing that children should make irreversible and serious medical decisions with the connivance of adults who are supposed to protect them.

    And now I shall remove my tongue from my cheek before I accidentally bite it. The fact remains that if you see the world as oppressors versus victims, you will divide everyone up that way, and regard all beliefs as the tools of one side or the other. And as to who is who and which is which, that’s purely a matter of viewpoint, which is why we cannot be sure of our categorizations.

  14. Go back a generation or two, and everyone held offensive views (by current standards). In a couple more generations, Bernie Sanders will look like a Nazi. Darwin was a racist, as was his contemporary Abraham Lincoln. But both were liberals by Victorian standards.

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