“Science must overcome its racist legacy” is the headline, followed by a commitment from four guest editors of color to “help decolonize research and forge a path towards restorative justice and reconciliation,” a reparations-tinged evocation of post-apartheid South Africa.
It is both embarrassing and disgraceful that Nature, the preeminent British scientific journal, should surrender science to social justice.
Science requires the separation of fact from passion. “A scientific man ought to have no wishes, no affections, a mere heart of stone” wrote Charles Darwin. First prove your claim, then decide what to do about it. Nature should be responsible for the first part, values and the legal-political system for the second. This editorial skips the first step and goes straight to values: if a fact is upsetting, label it “racist.”
This is just one of a series of social justice Nature editorials1 where science is tuned to accommodate anti-colonial animus. These editorials are completely inappropriate in a scientific journal: science and social justice don’t play well together.
Never mind its impropriety—the recent editorial doesn’t even offer a decent defense for its social-justice case. For example, because the rise of European slavery coincided with the rise of science, science is supposedly both tainted and complicit.
During that period, a scientific enterprise emerged that reinforced racist beliefs and cultures. Apartheid, colonization, forced labour, imperialism and slavery have left an indelible mark on science.
Does the coincident rise of science and, say, slavery mean that one caused the other or, as the authors claim, that science is somehow tainted because it developed when society was in decline? To demonstrate at this distance that science, or at least scientific ideas, caused or were caused by slavery is essentially impossible (if there is any plausible link, it is more likely to be positive: as the Industrial Revolution advanced, the need for slave labor declined). Historically, it is common for things we deplore, like war and conquest, to result in things we admire, such as the Roman Empire and the art of the Renaissance, not to mention the United States. Either way, we need to know the whole picture before condemning just one part of it. We may conclude that old ideas, or some of them, were wrong, although even that is tough given that we no longer have access to the data—contemporary information about the human populations, white as well as black. Still, that doesn’t make these ideas “racist.” A scientific fact is either true (but always subject to revision) or false, and this is all.
The article does say something about what it calls “core racist beliefs,” such as,
[T]he idea that race is a determinant of human traits and capacities (such as the ability to build civilizations); and the idea that racial differences make white people superior.
It is undeniable that people differ in many traits. It is equally undeniable that human subgroups, however defined, also differ. Race may or may not be a “determinant” of human traits, but race differences are certainly correlated with trait differences: there are average IQ differences between self-identified blacks and whites, for example. This is just a fact, yet the authors of this editorial apparently consider any behavioral difference between racial groups to be a “core racist belief,” whether it is true or not. To claim that any empirical finding is itself racist is a violation of the fundamental scientific commitment to truth.
The terms “superior” and “inferior” either refer to measurable quantities, in which case they are part of science, or to value judgements, in which case they are not. “Men are on average taller than women” is a scientific claim; “men are inferior to women” is a moral one, outside of science. The authors constantly confuse moral and scientific (factual) issues. They also seem to have an ideological commitment which makes only some facts acceptable—a view which is totally incompatible with the scientific mission of Nature.
The authors evidently believe that attempts to study human group differences are inherently racist. Early studies led Darwin to believe in a hierarchy of races, for which he is now condemned. But, of course, the races that Darwin encountered, and the body of science with which he was familiar, are not those we encounter today. Given Darwin’s perspicacity as a naturalist, his pre-genetics scientific knowledge, and his compulsive attention to detail, who is to say that his position was unreasonable? More recently, Charles Murray and DNA pioneer James Watson have been condemned for suggesting that intelligence is partly determined by genes, which is very likely true (almost any trait is partly determined by genes).
“By 1950, the consensus among scientific leaders was that race is a social construct and not a biological phenomenon,” the authors write, ignoring the fact that consensus is not the same as truth. In fact, it matters not at all how you define “race.” What matters is the fact of individual and group differences, no matter how you define “group.” Self-identified groups are rarely identical in terms of almost any average measure, from IQ to weight.
The editorial points to a dodgy intellectual future for Nature:
[Future articles] will seek to understand the systemic nature of racism in science — including the institutions of academia, government, the private sector and the culture of science — that can lead either to an illusion of colour blindness (beneath which unconscious bias occurs) or to deliberate practices that are defiantly in opposition to inclusion. The articles will use the tools of journalism…
The authors merely assume systemic racism. They also equate it to racial disparities in income and other social measures. But real systemic racism—explicit bias—is illegal, and disparities have many proximal causes such as culture and biology. Systemic racism can be proved only when these have been eliminated. The article ignores the issue, and also assumes the existence of an unproven, and possibly unprovable, “unconscious bias” (the most popular test has been widely discredited).
The editorial is also concerned about the eugenics movement, which enjoyed widespread support among Western elites in the early 20th century. Fair enough, except that eugenics, the genetic improvement of the human race, was a political movement, not a scientific one—resembling in that respect the racial emphasis currently embraced by Nature. Science is a collection of facts; eugenics advocated interventions in people’s lives that most now consider immoral and probably racist. The fact that humans, just like other animals, can be selectively bred, doesn’t demand that selective breeding be put into practice. Any action requires a motive. The eugenic proposals of Francis Galton and Arthur de Gobineau have no place in science. But Galton’s human reaction-time data and his analysis of fingerprints—and even his highlighting the obvious fact that the selective breeding of humans is possible—are just facts and should not be termed racist.
Science or ‘Indigenous knowledge’?
The article ends with a criticism of “European” science.
[C]olonization is sometimes defended on the grounds that it brought science to once-colonized countries. Such arguments have two highly problematic foundations: that Europe’s knowledge was (or is) superior to that of all others, and that non-European cultures contributed little or nothing to the scientific and scholarly record.
Again, the claim here is not so much about science as it is about values. Yes, in the 19th century most people in the West thought that science (not “European” science, but just “science”) was superior to the mostly unwritten knowledge of colonial peoples, not because it was white, but because it was subject to empirical testing—that’s what “science” means. European scientists also made an effort to understand “Indigenous scholarship” (a fact the authors seem to deplore), as opposed to the indigenous themselves, who, for the most part, showed little reciprocal interest. It was usstudying them, not so much the other way around.
Many people still think that in this culture war, science wins over “indigenous scholarship.” The authors presumably disagree, not because there is scientific evidence in favor of the Indigènes (obviously), but because, well, that’s how they feel.
The reader can make up his own mind as to which view makes the most sense. But one thing is certain: introducing social justice ideology into a scientific journal harms both science and justice.
1 This ideological commitment began with a 2020 editorial (Nature June 9), in the wake of the George Floyd hysteria, alleging that science is “complicit in systemic racism.”