by Noah Carl
Monday, 16
August 2021
Debate
11:45

‘Nature’ magazine has lost its way

The journal's embrace of social justice activism is shredding its reputation
by Noah Carl
Nature readers last summer (Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)

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

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Peter LR
Peter LR
1 year ago

Well how can a ‘paper’ like that be peer reviewed when it’s full of opinion and ideology? And do they not see Asian people as BIPOC?
Mind you, your suggestion:” since most of them are white, they could always resign and give up their positions to members of underrepresented groups.” is a great riposte.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  Peter LR

90% of everything covid has been agenda first, ‘Science’ last. Nature Magazine would be proud.

Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
1 year ago

The “Nature” article is not concerned with the United States in particular – it speaks in general terms about “the academy”. And yet the article calls for more inclusion of Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour in conservation ecology. Outside of the United States, Canada, and Australia, who are these Indigenous people? Who for example are the Indigenous people of the UK? Should the UK be more inclusive towards Anglo-Saxons? And what about those Norman interlopers?
This is yet another example of the USA exporting its culture wars – with comic effects.

Sharon Overy
Sharon Overy
1 year ago

Quite so. Indigenous to where?

In European countries, the indigenous peoples are white!

Christian Moon
Christian Moon
1 year ago

Are we sure it doesn’t stand for Black and Indigenous People of Colour, and therefore not indigenous people of whiteness?

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
1 year ago

Neo-Maoism continues its remorseless advance. You are quite right, Mr Carl, to reverence the achievements of Darwin and Galton which in no way depend on the falsehoods of prejudice. In the same way, Newton cultivated an interest in alchemy; this neither discredits nor even involves his authentic discoveries. Wagner, as everyone knows, cultivated some of the most unpleasant opinions around; this does nothing to reduce the grace and sublimity of his music. The work is one thing; the man another. You suggest these views are antiquated; perhaps among the fanatics and opportunists who infest the universities – not among the wider public and, above all, never in principle. Truth is never antiquated; rather its detractors are primitive. Sadly, the neo-Maoists are attempting to recall the days of superstition and heresy trials and are, for the moment, succeeding.

Last edited 1 year ago by Simon Denis
Michael James
Michael James
1 year ago

Somehow many more think tanks and research instititions need to be established outside the traditional educational system, which is beyond hope.

Last edited 1 year ago by Michael James
Edward Jones
Edward Jones
1 year ago
Reply to  Michael James

Who will they be peopled by? Don’t they all come from the same brain-washing system? Is there anything outside the traditional system. You feel hopeless. I am bewildered.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
1 year ago

I used to think that publications like Nature were misguided, perhaps trying too hard to be ‘inclusive’.
What I’m starting to see is this pattern of social justice activism is being duplicated everywhere: education. business, news media, politics, science, even the military and medical establishment. When all these facets of private and public life are in agreement of the same overarching ideology, you are in big trouble as a nation.
What we’re witnessing is the ‘externalization of the hierarchy’. Many people are waking up to the totalitarian ideology that is rapidly gripping the West. Much like any corrupt organization, once its leaders feel endangered by the general population they will tighten its grip on power. Notice how identity politics became prevalent after ‘Occupy Wall Street’. Social justice activism has made an unholy alliance with big business titans. What we are witnessing perhaps for the first time is a merging of the far-left with the far-right.

Ben Hekster
Ben Hekster
1 year ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

The view of ‘left’ and ‘right’ as being polar opposites has always been incorrect: it has always a matter of power existing at the top vs. at the bottom. The proper analogy is a ‘U’ shape with both Left and Right close together at the top. The struggle is with us at the bottom, trying desperately to hold on to some power over our own existence.

J Bryant
J Bryant
1 year ago

Nature started as a single publication that, as the author noted, became arguably the most prestigious journal in science. Then about 20 years ago Nature said the volume of submissions had became so large it decided to create specialist subsidiaries, Nature Ecology & Evolution being one, Nature Genetics another. In my opinion that decision diluted the brand.
Now there’s a family of increasingly specialized Nature journals each obsessively interested in a narrow field of endeavor. I suspect the real reason for creating all these sub-journals was simply to make more money by trading on the Nature name. And that, I suspect, is why the journal is pandering to the current woke ideology–they want to be on the right side of history and reap the financial gains.
It’s very, very sad to see the corruption of such a revered journal.

D Ward
D Ward
1 year ago

I gave up in National Geographic for the same reason.

Ben Hekster
Ben Hekster
1 year ago
Reply to  D Ward

And Scientific American (while it was always somewhat problematic, one could ‘read around’ those faults) has become entirely unreadable

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
1 year ago

I watched a Dave Rubin show recently – as one does when wanting to deflect one’s attention from the hellhole you live in, to concentrate on the hell of others. I recall that a substantial sum of money had been allocated to baseball to address equity issues. Looking at the figures, it seemed the blacks were under represented, whites were very slightly over represented and Latinos were way over represented. Sorry for the Latinos.
Then they pulled figures for basketball…. Well of course I don’t have to spell out that there needs to be a wholesale rejig of the entire basketball fraternity.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago

“Well of course I don’t have to spell out that there needs to be a wholesale rejig of the entire basketball fraternity.”

What are you talking about – that is good – leveling is done one way only, and it will not effect Basketball.

“Greg d**e, the director-general of the BBC, has condemned the corporation as ‘hideously white’ and said its race relations are as bad as those in some police forces.”

This sort of thing is NOT said the other way.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago

“Well of course I don’t have to spell out that there needs to be a wholesale rejig of the entire basketball fraternity.”
What are you talking about – that is good – leveling is done one way only, and it will not effect Basketball.
“Greg D * ke, the director-general of the BBC, has condemned the corporation as ‘hideously white’ and said its race relations are as bad as those in some police forces.”
This sort of thing is NOT said the other way.

haha – had to copy/paste and add the redacting spaces and * to try to get it past the thought pol * ce algorithm… (Awaiting for Approval)

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago

Got to love Politicized science – like Stalin making the Lemarkian run the nation’s genetics and Biology science, tens of thousands of science people who were of the Mendel school ended up in Gulags!

““Lysenkoism: The Danger of Politicized Science.” Lysenkoism, named for Soviet biologist Trofim Lysenko, provides an early warning of just how dangerous and lethal politicized science can be. Lysenko’s disastrous theories for improving agriculture were imposed by the Soviet Union, resulting in death by starvation of millions”

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
1 year ago

In the UK, the ‘I’ in ‘BIPOC’ are white.

Raymond Inauen
Raymond Inauen
1 year ago

Reading the article in Nature will turn your stomach. OMG. You can only get depressed. What are they doing?

Keith Merrick
Keith Merrick
1 year ago

Noah Carl is becoming one of my favourite writers. I like his calm, measured tone.

Alan Hawkes
Alan Hawkes
1 year ago

How can so many, otherwise highly intelligent, people be so easily side-tracked from what they do well?

Alan Hawkes
Alan Hawkes
1 year ago

How is it that so many, otherwise highly intelligent, people are unable to stick to doing what they do well?

Jonathan A Gallant
Jonathan A Gallant
1 year ago

  The appearance of woke clichés in Nature reminds one of the early stages of Lysenkoism in the late-lamented USSR during the 1930s. At first, nobody was arrested for criticizing Lysenko or espousing “Mendelism-Morganism” in Genetics (that would come in the late 30s and 40s). However, polemics began to appear denouncing “reactionary menshevist idealism” as a vaguely defined source of all evil in Science, comparable to the sinister working of “systemic racism” and invisible “implicit bias” of contemporary woke verbiage. The polemics against “bourgeois idealism” became more virulent—charging it with counter-revolution and “wrecking”—as Lysenko’s proponents, having gained Stalin’s support, battled to take power in the scientific and academic establishment. Perhaps the US and the Anglosphere will enjoy a similar trend when activists of “anti-racist intervention” gain enough support from academic administrations, such as the now ubiquitous vice-presidents, deans, offices, and committees dedicated to the holy trinity of D, E, and I.