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Reckoning with Our Mistakes – Scientific American


An article about women engineers, published in 1908, has a promising start: If women are attending technical schools and are not legally blocked from working in a forge or firm, why do they face so many obstacles to employment? A reader in 2020 who discovers such a socially progressive question in the archives of Scientific American anticipates a discussion of sex discrimination. Perhaps women such as Emily Warren Roebling, who took over her husband’s role as chief engineer on construction of the Brooklyn Bridge after he became bedridden, will be held up for their contributions to the field. Surely the article will feature the voice of Nora Stanton Barney, who had recently fought to become the first woman accepted as a junior member in the American Society of Civil Engineers and was active in the suffrage movement.

Alas, no. Author Karl Drews explains it simply: the obstacles “are inherent in the nature of the case and are due to women’s comparative weakness, both bodily and mental.” He elaborates: “The work of the engineer is creative in the highest sense of the word. From his brain spring the marvels of modern industry,” in contrast to women, “whose notable performances have hitherto been confined to the reproductive arts.” The path to the workshop takes “blistered hands, not dilettante pottering and observation.” Drews declares that even “the most resolute and indefatigable of women” cannot overcome these difficulties. His rationale is sound, he says, because there has been “no great woman composer, painter, or sculptor.” Even “the best of woman novelists are surpassed by men.”

After making these conclusions in the first few paragraphs, Drews does something more insidious: he invokes data to support his case. The writer sent an inquiry letter to dozens of engineering firms and technical societies to “obtain some definite information on the subject.” But he manipulates the cherry-picked survey results to uphold his thesis. Drews denigrates the few women who do come up by baselessly attacking their skills; the sole engineer he deems worthy is uniquely “masculine.” When Drews discovers that some women in the U.S. Census identify themselves as boilermakers, he asks an electrical engineering institute if this can possibly be true. They reply that they are “too chivalrous” to permit such a thing. And poof! Those women’s careers cease to exist.

In today’s terms, we would say the author is gaslighting the experiences of women engineers when he is not erasing them outright. While the article is outrageous in tone, it is even more instructive as a case study in how the trappings of science have sometimes been misused in these pages to uphold systemic oppression. Under the cloak of empirical evidence, Drews and other writers entrenched discrimination by framing it as unimpeachable truth.

It is impossible to make an exhaustive assessment of the magazine’s mistakes, but we scoured our archives for some of the most illustrative. Our identity has changed significantly over the decades—from a compendium of inventions to industrial boosterism to reporting on scientific events to experts explaining their research to today, where a journalistic approach guides coverage. One thing that remained fairly consistent, however, is the magazine’s position that science could spread prosperity and solve the world’s problems.

In 1856 the editors, who were criticizing the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) as “impractical” (too many papers about the solar system, not enough on construction safety codes), wrote: “What is science but well-arranged facts derived from study and observation? It is not merely speculation—hypothesis—it is positive truth.” How quaintly arrogant. If it were that simple to establish and convey a shared reality, we would not have needed to devote an entire issue in 2019 to the warping of truth, the breakdown of trust, the chaos of misinformation. Wearing masks and cutting greenhouse gases would not be political issues. Today we would be more inclined to say science can explain the world’s problems, including the ones it helped to create.

These days when we deliberate story proposals and editorial strategy, we reassess the status quo and ask one another deeper questions: What makes someone an expert? Who is interrogating the data? What are our responsibilities as gatekeepers? Who is missing from our pages? Because when we look back, it is easier to identify the voices and ideas we published that caused harm; it is harder to assess how much was lost by overlooking or excluding people and perspectives who could have shaped knowledge for a better, safer, fairer world.

Science is done by fallible humans, and the job of editors (also fallible humans) is to evaluate it with skepticism while respecting expertise. For much of its history, Scientific American carved out a niche between journalism and peer-reviewed journals. That hybrid model, however, also gave us a wide berth without clear boundaries. We could operate in both spaces without having to adhere to the rules of either one. As long as an article could be classified as scientific in its approach, was not too fringe-y, and, more important, was contributed by a person of appropriate reputation (that is, mostly elite, white, older men), there was an editorial attitude of “anything goes.” And too often anything did.

For more than 100 years we revered inventor-entrepreneur types with a tone that undermined the collaborative spirit of science while ignoring the contributions of women and nonwhite scholars. In doing so, we perpetuated the myth of the eccentric male genius whose discoveries arise though his brilliance alone. We cannot help but wonder if generations of men who absorbed through our coverage that the highest “scientific” aspiration was to get rich by inventing some practical technology helped to breed the tech titans of today, who take all the credit for (and control over) their products while shirking responsibility for any consequences those products have wrought on society.

In the name of progress (and manifest destiny), we often disparaged knowledge that threatened the expansion of Western civilization. In one column from 1868, the editors opine on a report from General William Tecumseh Sherman on how “Indian affairs” were hampering railroad construction. Sherman, as you might remember, is infamous for his “scorched earth” style of warfare against both the Confederate Army and Native Americans. But Scientific American’s editors didn’t think Sherman was being aggressive enough: “The Indians must be summarily and thoroughly squelched…. They are the most treacherous, as well as the most inhuman, of all barbarous races.” Later that year Sherman launched an appalling campaign to obliterate one of the most important resources for many Great Plains tribes by slaughtering millions of bison and nearly wiping out the species. Starved and traumatized, the tribes were forced onto reservations.

Fast-forward to the present, when we face flooding cities, overfished oceans and depleted soils. Imagine if back in the 19th century, Scientific American editors dispatched correspondents to write open-minded reports on Indigenous peoples’ resource management and foodways. Perhaps they would have learned how grazing bison help to sustain fertile soils, an “ecosystem service” that cattle do not provide. In a belated reversal, scientists are turning to Indigenous communities to learn how to live sustainably and encourage biodiversity. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is increasingly drawing on Indigenous knowledge and voices to assess how humanity can best adapt to a changing world.

During the 19th century, Scientific American published articles that legitimized racism. The magazine vigorously advocated for the patent system and its route to wealth—but only for white people. In 1861 the editors wrote that even free Black Americans could not be granted patents, because they were “not regarded as citizens” and could not defend against infringement in court.

By 1871 Charles Darwin had concluded that all living humans were descended from the same ancestral stock. Leading German anthropologists were promoting the “psychic unity” of all people. But none of that stopped the rise of scientific racism, including false ideas about biological determinism. On October 5, 1895, the magazine published a speech by AAAS president Daniel G. Brinton, in which he argues “the black, the brown, and the red races differentiate anatomically so much from the white … they never could rival its results by equal efforts.” Right from the womb, he says (offering only his opinion as evidence), a person’s race determines “his tastes and ambitions, his fears and hopes, his failure or success.”

Brinton and his cohort were not hapless scientists whose research was perverted for nefarious policy. The highest goal of anthropology, Brinton wrote, is to measure the “peculiarities” of “races, nations, tribes” so that people can be governed according to their “sub-species.” These differences “supply the only sure foundation for legislation; not a priori notions of the rights of man.” In 1896, less than a year after we published Brinton’s speech, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that “separate but equal” schools and other facilities were legal. As California Supreme Court Justice Loren Miller explained in a 1966 book, the ruling “smuggled Social Darwinism into the Constitution.”

Scientific American also covered eugenics extensively. The intellectual roots of eugenics sought to improve the human species through breeding. Long before it became the obsession of the Nazi regime, the bias along racial and class lines had become apparent—yet we continued covering eugenics neutrally rather than critically. With the proliferation of both-sides-ism, we allowed contributors to hide racist political agendas under the guise of science. Articles written against eugenics were often labeled “the opposition.”

Even after a staff writer argued, in 1932, that a lack of knowledge in genetics and environmental influences and unreliable intelligence tests meant that eugenicists were misleading “the fallacy-ridden human race,” articles promoting eugenics as scientific consensus continued to appear in the magazine. In 1933 a neo-Malthusian promoted birth control but only to prevent the reproduction of “defectives.” (The two accompanying photographs are a crowd of people in what looks like a bread line next to a cluster of caged guinea pigs.) The following year the president of the Human Betterment Foundation wrote that the “trend toward race degeneracy is evident in statistics so well known that they need not here be rehearsed.” (A pull quote from the article features “the famous Viennese surgeon” Adolf Lorenz asserting that eugenic sterilization “eventually will come to all civilized countries as a means of getting rid of the scum of humanity.”) In 1935 an article was ominously entitled “The Oddest Thing about the Jews.”

We are not saying the magazine should have ignored the topic of “human betterment”—it was part of the zeitgeist and its false ideas about genetic inferiority attached to race, ethnicity and class needed to be debunked. But the same editors who recognized that eugenics was a dangerous pseudoscience should not have given eugenicists a platform at all.

The Second World War years were a period of low editorial quality in general; the brand was rescued and reimagined by different owners in 1948. New editor in chief Dennis Flanagan later told Mary Carol Zuegner (who wrote her Ph.D. thesis on Scientific American) that he was “a great believer in the importance of context.” This principle ushered in work of greater integrity, some of which has become even more relevant over time. In the 1960s articles investigating racism placed the need for change on the institutional level. One uses survey data to show that riots are not attributable to individual behavior but to the “blocked-opportunity theory.” In April 1967 psychological studies show that racial unrest will continue until the Black community gets “genuine political and economic power.”

But articles such as these do not negate that our coverage promoted systemic racism, and it is chilling to experience the effects of that legacy on our current pandemic crisis. Americans who are willing to sacrifice the lives of people who are disabled, poor, elderly or from historically oppressed groups so that the U.S. economy can “go back to normal” sound like modern-day eugenicists. How else to explain the acceptance that some of us are inherently more worthy of life than others? Advocating for “going back to normal” in 2020 is not all that different from protecting “the sane social structure” of 1933. Scientific American contributed to the programming that “normal” and “sane” for some means oppression and death for others.

In her dissertation, Zuegner analyzed how Scientific American covered the 1925 trial of a Tennessee schoolteacher, John T. Scopes, whose crime was teaching evolution. She writes: “The magazine’s editorial stance, played out in small notes in its opinion pages, was one of nonchalance because editors were so sure of the outcome, that science would prevail.”

This bedrock faith is now our most dangerous delusion. You, too, dear reader, might lean on it during these cataclysmic times. It may be easy to laugh at the popularity of the flat-earth movement, to dismiss conspiracy as silly. It is less amusing to learn that only half of Americans in a 2020 poll said they would get a coronavirus vaccine when it becomes available. It would be an egregious error if we editors fail to understand how these “antiscience” stances are rooted in similar forces, including a rise in institutional distrust, pervasive disinformation, the legacy of scientific racism, and a stubborn belief that we can beat back chaos if we just publish more “well-arranged facts.”

After all, Scientific American no longer luxuriates as the preeminent delivery system of science to the public. No one does. We are one node in a dizzying information ecosystem where attention goes to the loudest noise.

Reckoning with this “science as authority” attitude means that we can better serve a deeply confused public. We feel just as overwhelmed by the problems of our world as you do, and we think this humility is a good thing. It means that we are awake to the challenges we face, that we are examining our assumptions. Confronting our history gives us the courage to understand the limitations of our own age and reach beyond them.

With coronavirus infections surging across much of the U.S., the stakes could not be higher. If Scientific American is to help shape a more just and hopeful future, we must learn from the arrogance and exclusions of our past. Not just because it is right, but because the power of scientific knowledge is stronger for it. And if you are an Indigenous scientist who studies bison grazing and would consider writing an article for us about grasslands restoration, we’d be honored to hear from you. We sincerely regret that the recognition is 175 years late.

In honor of Scientific American’s 175th anniversary: Relative frequency of terms in the magazine, from 1845 to the present.


Credit: Moritz Stefaner and Christian Lässer
For more context, see “Visualizing 175 Years of Words in Scientific American



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