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A Science Journal Said That Removing Statues "Risks Whitewashing History"

"Maybe when I tell people that science is systemically racist, they’ll believe me now. This trash is endorsed by a top journal," one scientist said.

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Updated on

Scientists and others are slamming Nature, one of the most prestigious journals in science, for a staff editorial headlined "Removing statues of historical figures risks whitewashing history."

Removing statues of historical figures risks whitewashing history: https://t.co/bfjPlIW9ck #NaturesTake

The editorial, published online Monday, addresses the nationwide movement to take down Confederate statues. Nature, based out of London, argued that these kinds of statues should remain, while parks, streets, and other public spaces named for Nazis, for example, should also keep those names.

“Erasing names, however, runs the risk of whitewashing history,” the editorial said. It also suggested a fix: “Institutions and cities could do something similar by installing a plaque noting the controversy, or an equally sized monument commemorating the victims.” Nature likened its proposal to the common practice of footnoting errors and ethical questions in studies.

The editorial began attracting ire online on Wednesday when the journal tweeted it.

Many said that Nature missed the chief argument against the statues, which is that they inherently celebrate and glorify the people they depict.

Really disappointed to read @NatureNews say statue removal is "whitewashing history". Can remember w/out honoring! https://t.co/S1Rh7QpMut

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@NatureNews statues HONOR people & ideas. there are other, better ways to remember our horrible past than honoring… https://t.co/ml4PK80r3p

@NatureNews Leaving perpetrators of "mistakes" on pedestals does not "acknowledge" those mistakes - it celebrates them

There were a lot of raised eyebrows at the use of the term "whitewashing."

Um. @Nature? I'm a little worried you don't understand what whitewashing means,... https://t.co/7CPoH5GCCQ

@NatureNews Statues of people who experimented on slaves are whitewashing. Literally. Society--including science-… https://t.co/V5nGvR9hNe

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People also thought that Nature was giving too much credit to people like James Marion Sims.

One statue under debate, located in New York City, is of James Marion Sims, an American surgeon from the 19th century who is remembered as the father of modern gynecology. He operated on female slaves without anesthesia or informed consent, practices that many historians now regard as unethical even for that era. Nature defended the monument, writing that Sims was "far from the only doctor experimenting on slaves in 1849, despite the fact that the abolitionist movement was well under way in the United States."

uhhhhhhh NOPE experimenting on enslaved people means you're a piece of shit who doesn't get to be lauded… https://t.co/FAy6PeTOhg

@NatureNews The objections to Sims are not just that the women were slaves. He operated on the women without anaesthesia.

@NatureNews We should honor people who were ethical ahead of their time. Not people who were unethical because no one stopped them.

To several people, that one of science's most prestigious journals published such an opinion indicated a bigger problem: the underrepresentation of minorities in the field, as well as their historic exploitation by scientists.

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@NatureNews Hi, Nature. I'd love to read a column about dismantling institutional racism in science. Maybe do that… https://t.co/kZUoLNizcC

Maybe when I tell people that science is systemically racist, they'll believe me now. This trash is endorsed by a t… https://t.co/djmZ1BqbRI

@NatureNews And may I suggest that the next time you tackle such a topic, you enlist scientists of color to do so.

A few even went so far as to suggest a boycott.

Frankly, folks, I think we should boycott giving comment to or writing for @nature and @NatureNews. This is obscene… https://t.co/0UyOtgApji

This is outrageous & infuriating. I urge all scientists to read this Nature editorial, decide whether you support t… https://t.co/QDKcAhNKjz

UPDATE

On Wednesday night, Nature changed the headline (which now reads "Science must acknowledge its past mistakes and crimes"), subheadline ("Science must acknowledge mistakes as it marks its past" was changed to "Injustice in the name of research should not be forgotten — nor should those injured by scientists"), and a line of the editorial (“Instead of removing painful reminders, perhaps these should be supplemented" was changed to “In cases where painful reminders are allowed to stand, they could be supplemented”).

Nature Editor in Chief Philip Campbell also added this apology:

"The original version of this article was offensive and poorly worded. It did not accurately convey our intended message and it suggested that Nature is defending statues of scientists who have done grave injustice to minorities and other people. We have corrected the headline, standfirst and a line in the text to make clear we do not support keeping those memorials; our position is that any such memorials that are allowed to stand should be accompanied by context that makes the injustice clear and acknowledges the victims.

We apologise for the original article and are taking steps to ensure that we do not make similar mistakes in the future. We realise that many people disagree with the article more fundamentally; we will be publishing some of the strong criticisms that we have received and welcome further responses."


Stephanie Lee is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.

Contact Stephanie M. Lee at stephanie.lee@buzzfeed.com.

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