October 4, 2022

Is politics invading a leading science journal?

An editorial in Nature Human Behaviour has sparked a lively debate over woke science and free speech. Its headline, “Science must respect the dignity and rights of all humans”, is a motherhood statement. But critics contend that it could mark a radical departure from traditional scientific discourse. It was written by the journal’s editor, Stavroula Kousta, who defended it in a tweet: “Some argue that we should evaluate such research only on the basis of its scientific soundness and merit. I disagree.”

Launched in 2017, Nature Human Behaviour is a relatively new journal which occasionally deals with bioethical topics. As a member of the Nature stable, it shares in the prestige of the parent publication.

Harvard psychology professor and best-selling author Steven Pinker was outraged. He tweeted: “Journalists & psychologists take note: Nature Human Behavior [sic] is no longer a peer-reviewed scientific journal but an enforcer of a political creed. I won’t referee, publish, or cite (how do we know articles have been vetted for truth rather than political correctness)?”

The opening sentence raised a red flag for critics: “Although academic freedom is fundamental, it is not unbounded. The same ethical considerations should underlie science about humans as apply to research with human participants.” The editor wants, in other words, to apply the Belmont Principles of respect for persons, beneficence, and justice to all articles published in the journal. These are all but universally accepted. However, the journal intends to extend their reach.

However, these frameworks apply to research involving the participation of humans and do not generally consider the potential benefits and harms of research about humans who do not participate directly in the research. …

Yet, people can be harmed indirectly. For example, research may — inadvertently — stigmatize individuals or human groups. It may be discriminatory, racist, sexist, ableist or homophobic. It may provide justification for undermining the human rights of specific groups, simply because of their social characteristics.

So not only the paper itself will be assessed for racism and gender bias, but its perceived implications for groups which are not even mentioned in the research. If the editors believe that potential harm to some group might possibly result, articles might not be published.

Advancing knowledge and understanding is a fundamental public good. In some cases, however, potential harms to the populations studied may outweigh the benefit of publication. Academic content that undermines the dignity or rights of specific groups; assumes that a human group is superior or inferior over another simply because of a social characteristic; includes hate speech or denigrating images; or promotes privileged, exclusionary perspectives raises ethics concerns that may require revisions or supersede the value of publication. 

From now on, articles must follow the guidelines on bias-free language from the American Psychological Association.

Writing in Quillette, Bo Weingarten observed:

This is not at all reassuring. Asking ethicists to assess the wisdom of publishing a journal article is as antithetical to the spirit of science as soliciting publication advice from a religious scholar. Who are these “ethics experts” and “advocacy groups” anyway?