The journal's embrace of social justice activism is shredding its reputation
Nature is a revered name in academic publishing. The journal was founded in London in 1869, and has since become one of the two main titles (the other being Science) that every academic wants to publish in. Having just one “Nature paper” on your CV can be enough to land a tenure-track job at a top department.
It’s all the more concerning then, that in the last few years, Nature has handed over an increasing amount of editorial space to social justice activism. In February of 2019, Jordan Peterson remarked that a once-great publication was going “farther down the social constructionist rabbit hole”.
The latest example comes in the form of a piece titled “Anti-racist interventions to transform ecology, evolution and conservation biology departments”, published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution. No less than twenty-six authors are listed under the title, suggesting this was not some trivial undertaking. It includes charts, tables and even a glossary of key terms (with entries such as “racial microaggressions” and “white privilege”).
The authors begin by noting that, in their field of conservation biology, “institutional and structural racism continue to create barriers to inclusion for Black people, Indigenous people and people of colour”. They proceed to describe the nature of this “institutional and structural racism”, before outlining their proposed “anti-racist interventions”. These include prioritising recruitment of “BIPOC”, setting up protocols for “anonymous reporting of hate”, and discussing anti-racist values “on the first day of class”.
Needless to say, I’m not convinced by the authors’ proposals, nor indeed by their use of the nebulous term “structural racism”. To begin with, they lump together several quite separate issues, while claiming that each is a manifestation of the same general “oppression” faced by non-white people in conservation biology. For example, the overrepresentation of whites in PhD programs and the “marginalisation” of local communities by some modern researchers are surely distinct phenomena? And neither necessarily indicates “racism”.
The authors take the usual swipes at historical figures whose views were not in line with contemporary sensibilities, grumbling that “many species carry scientific and common names that commemorate eugenics proponents”. And they argue that even the writings of Charles Darwin “contained racist ideas”. (Earlier this year, Science published an editorial describing him as “an English man with injurious and unfounded prejudices”.) As to what departments should do about “problematic” figures from the past, the authors note that “buildings and gathering places can be redesigned with equity in mind”.
Of course, I’d argue that figures like Darwin, as well as Galton and Fisher, deserve to be honoured regardless of what specific views they may have held. Their scientific contributions alone have earned them a place in history. Unfortunately, this view (that we shouldn’t expunge the founders of our disciplines) now looks increasingly antiquated.
What should we make of the authors’ call to increase non-white representation? They provide a chart showing that every racial group other than whites is underrepresented in conservation biology. Interestingly, however, this chart shows that Asians are massively overrepresented in other areas of STEM — far more so than whites. Strangely, the authors do not take this as evidence of institutional barriers against non-Asians. And since most of them are white, they could always resign and give up their positions to members of underrepresented groups.
“Nature” used to be synonymous with extraordinary scientific accomplishment. But these days, it’s hard to distinguish the editorial pages from a radical student manifesto. They ought to ditch the activism, and get back to doing what they did best: collating the most important research from across the sciences.
Noah Carl is an independent researcher and writer. You can follow him on Twitter @NoahCarl90