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Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Whatever happened to Nature magazine?

They're looking more and more like the UK Guardian, only with more math

W e have a standing joke here here in the USA: if you want to portray some Brit as a maniac whose brain has overheated from exposure too much politics, show him or her sitting at a coffee shop or on a tram reading The Guardian. Jeremy Clarkson, a Brit himself, did a hilarious sketch where an SJW spouts lefty jargon at a BBC staff meeting about misuse of the departmental copier, making his point by putting a copy of The Guardian on the table in front of her.

Maybe he should have used a copy of Nature magazine instead. On April 7 its editors took time out from lecturing us about polar bears and global warming to inform us that mentioning that the Wuhan coronavirus comes from China is “fuelling racism and discrimination, especially against Asian people.” This, they say, has led to “hate crimes” and “racist attacks with untold human costs.”

Nature magazine in wastebasket
A copy of Nature magazine getting binned

To back it up they cite an article titled “Visibility challenges for Asian Scientists” [paywalled] that claims Asians are encountering barriers in becoming more visible at the international level.

This sudden mea-and-everybody-else-a-culpa seems to be based on political distaste for US President Trump and Brazil lawmaker Eduardo Bolsonaro, who've associated the virus with China, where it originated.

But it looks like what they're really doing is changing the language to suit their ideology. This differs little from what many leftist and feminist publications have been doing for years: redefining past behavior and word usage in such a way as to create a problem to rail against and demand change.


There's no better way for scientists to undermine our scientific credibility than to take sides in a political dispute. Our job is to identify factual truths about nature. To do this we must also debunk stories in the scientific literature and elsewhere that conflict with empirical evidence. But it's not our job to make moral judgements.

A few months ago some commentators tried to start a myth that porn causes brain damage. I'm not particularly interested in porn as a political issue—for me it's mainly a source of an endless supply of double entendres—but in writing my article, I realized there were two ways to go about debunking it.

One way is to accuse your opponent of being a member of some unsavory group, maybe linked to the alt-right or even Hitler himself. Hitler is the apex of name-calling, as only one person in history ever doubted that he was evil, and he or she (one never knows about Hitler) fled in 1945 to his penguin-proof Antarctic bunker and thence to the far side of the Moon, which is why the Chinese sent their probe there to retrieve him to help them create their 5G coronavirus, or something.

As you can tell from that last sentence, part of this strategy is to ridicule your opposition. It doesn't really matter how you do it. You can also do it as Nature has done, by redefining old terms as racist. The goal is to prevent your opponent from having a fair chance to state their position and to make the reader afraid of being thought stupid or racist for agreeing with it. It's a form of bullying.

The authoritarian approach creates conspiracy theories

If we learned anything from how the PRC government mishandled the Wuhan cronyvirus fiasco, it is that the more you use bullying to suppress unpleasant truths, the more you create conspiracy theories. And in science the most unpleasant truth is that a lot of our empirical evidence is not ready to for anyone to rely on, and many of our theories are surely wrong. Nor does our knowledge give us any moral authority to dictate others' word usage.

The alternative, which philosophers are practically screaming at us to adopt, is first to discover what in fact your opponents believe and why, and then to convince your opponent to agree with you. Telling him he's a lying dishonest racist neonazi commie scum who is trying to kill millions of people and spread poverty, disease, and pollution in his greedy quest for greater evilness is, in all likelihood, not going to do that very efficiently.

Whether you call it the principle of charity or good scholarly practice, the goal is to find the truth, whatever it is.

In the porn-causes-brain damage myth, the author misread some scientific articles and invented a theory that porn induced ΔFosB and caused a loss of gray matter. Calling him names or impugning his intelligence wouldn't have convinced very many readers. I congratulated him for trying to use difficult concepts of molecular biology and showed where he had misinterpreted them.

Or take the 5G conspiracy theorists. It's easy to call them frightened witch-burning torch-carrying peasants, but it only takes five minutes of research to see that those 5G theories came out of the scientific literature. These anti-5G people are not a bunch of loonies who think millimeter wave radiation is magically transmitting virus particles into our brains. They got their ideas from us. The same is true for the glyphosate conspiracy theorists and anti-vaxxers.

Here's how that works:

  1. A badly designed experiment claiming some harmful association gets published somewhere. Or someone reads two flawed articles in the literature and strings them together into a theory, as some naturopaths have done with chloroquine.

  2. Activists discover it and publicize it, thinking it supports their cause, and start doing bad things like banning harmless chemicals or burning cell towers or not being nice to Asian people.

  3. Members of the establishment attack and ridicule it.

At this point, our success or failure depends on whether we are perceived as fair or not. By taking sides and demonstrating political bias, Nature encourages people to see science as a corrupt, self-justifying political ideology. That's how the postmodernists saw it, and we're still struggling with the consequences. Now it's starting again: the anti-vaxxers, 5G opponents, and naturopaths aren't a bunch of loose nuts in a drawer that we can just slam shut and hope they stop rattling. Their opinions are shared by millions who see us using strawman arguments and dismissing them as stupid.

There are few things as corrosive to one's authority as a source of truth—which is what society looks to science to provide—than to display bias and treat fringe opinions disdainfully and unfairly. Part of Good Scholarly Practice is to present the evidence for and against our opinion calmly and fairly, even if (heaven forbid) that means fewer clicks.

Academic science is primarily funded by the government, so we derive financial benefit and job security from discovering things that justify making it bigger. This pulls us inexorably toward leftist politics. We must guard against this—and pardon my language here—religiously.

Intentionally or not, we create conspiracy theories when we publish bad papers and fail to explain them to the public. We become a conspiracy when we take sides when the issue turns political. The editors of Nature might think they're doing a public service, but when they start lecturing us about “racism and discrimination“ it shows they have left science and become just one in a long conga line of magazines trying to use science to support their political agenda.

apr 14 2020, 10:24 am. minor edits apr 16 2020, 8:24 pm

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