Just before Christmas, the prestigious journal Nature Communications retracted an article that examined the informal mentorship of junior scientists. Among other findings, the paper concluded junior female scientists benefitted from male mentors more than they did female mentors. This set off a firestorm of moral indignation on social media, putting pressure on the journal which then retracted the article following a second (and very unusual) round of peer-review.
Is such a retraction warranted? Or are we seeing retraction increasingly being used by journals as censorship of unpopular conclusions in the “cancel culture” age? Wired magazine recently documented that retractions of controversial science seem to be on the increase. The Wired article made an unironic comparison to The Purge movie, acknowledging that politically charged papers are judged differently than those that are not.Christopher J. Ferguson, “The Bad Retraction” at Psychology Today (January 11, 2021)
It’s encouraging that more people—well, okay, at least one more person—is speaking up about this.
Science run by a Twitter mob? Shame! Shame! Disgrace!
In the first place, the question is an entirely legitimate one: If men have been more highly placed for much longer than women in a given field, there is a good chance that a male mentor is better for a career than a female mentor. It’s a researchable question, for sure.
If we agree that that distribution leads to unfairness, the worst way to address it is to banish honest research into the fact—and that is just what the Twitter mob succeeded in doing.
Seeking diversity in reviewers is important. But statements such as these raise the specter of censorship, not based on diversity, but far-left ideology. It’s worth noting that the lead author of the retracted paper was, herself, a woman of color. Scientific publishers have a particular obligation to shield science from the whims of the masses (even masses of academics). Increasingly journal editors are failing at this important task, Nature Communications being only one recent example. We’re now at a state where retraction may be used, not for computation errors or fraudulent data, but as an ideological weapon against any unpopular science.Christopher J. Ferguson, “The Bad Retraction” at Psychology Today (January 11, 2021)
Remember this shameful episode when faced with bureaucrats huffing “Trust the science!” It appears that the science doesn’t trust the science. And if not, why should anyone else?