Statues are being taken down from their public pedestals across many US states. It isn’t just Confederate generals and politicians who are becoming the focus of the debate - the legacies of some scientists are also being brought into the spotlight. As much as it likes its apolitical and impartial reputation, science has been on the wrong side of history too.
Nature, one of the most prestigious journals in science, jumped in on this red-hot debate earlier this month with an editorial originally titled “Removing statues of historical figures risks whitewashing history.”
The clumsily-worded title and tone-deaf argument of the piece sparked outrage among readers and Nature-published scientists alike. On Monday, editor-in-chief Philip Campbell published a new article, apologizing for this editorial and acknowledged its “fundamental flaws.”
“We did not adequately explore the ramifications of this statement or subject it to sufficient scrutiny,” he wrote. “Removing such statutes or other memorials does not erase these individuals or their acts from history.”
The original article focused on the legacy of J Marion Sims, the so-called “father of modern gynecology”, whose work involved experimentation on slaves. A statue of the notorious surgeon stands in New York's Central Park. Protestors have argued that it should be removed or at least acknowledge Sims' victims. It was also recently graffitied with the label “RACIST”.
However, critics claim that eradicating these monuments means erasing history. Yet the purpose of statues is not a straightforward documentation of the past. Literally putting people on pedestals and depicting them as bronze-covered giants makes a pretty strong statement about how society views them. There are no statues of Josef Mengele or other scientists involved in Nazi human experimentation programs, despite their contribution science. Yet the world has certainly not forgotten their despicable actions.
“The Editorial is extraordinarily insensitive to the many groups that have been on the receiving end of this history, either directly or indirectly, currently or in the past,” Thomas Nelson, from the University of Montana, said in a letter to Nature.
“Statues are not only meant to be remembrances. Rather, they honor their subjects,” he added.
Many cities across the US are still toying with the decision to remove Confederate-era statues. While the wider debate is undoubtedly part of a shift in public opinion, many scientists have argued that Nature's heavy-handed editorial also highlights the lack of diversity in science.
“Your lack of diversity in your editorial staff is clearly evident,” Sonya Legg of Princeton University, New Jersey, said in her letter to Nature
Celeste Melamed from Colorado School of Mines added: "Please reconsider your actions and retract this – you are placing yourself on the wrong side of history, and actively harming scientists of color in your community."