Men [Sick]

Have you read the Nature editorial? Have you read my earlier post about it? Maybe what you are wanting is a deeper textual analysis of the editorial itself. You’ve come to the right place.
Men [sick]
Our 1869 mission statement is out of date.
That’s what the bitchy, complaining women are making us say.
It was 1833 when the English polymath William Whewell first coined the word ‘scientist’. Over subsequent decades, the word gradually replaced such commonly used terms as ‘natural philosophers’ and ‘men of science.
Scientist, you see , actually means “men of science”. So even if we changed our wording, we’d still be talking about men. Hah! Just wanted you to know.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, this last phrase was already out of date: pioneering women such as Mary Fairfax Somerville and Caroline Herschel were proving their worth as astronomers, mathematicians, botanists and palaeontologists.
I know! We were surprised, too, but we Googled women in science and read the Wikipedia entry. Turns out there actually WERE some women around back then.


The original mission statement of this journal, first printed in Nature’s second issue on 11 November 1869, was therefore running behind the times when it referred to ‘Scientific men’ — even though, to be fair, the word ‘scientist’ did not enter general circulation until the end of the nineteenth century. In other respects it is well worded — which is why we print it every week in the Table of Contents.
Okay, ONE point to the bitchy feminists. Even though, to be fair, it was perfectly acceptable to explicitly exclude women from our scientific societies, take credit for their scientific accomplishments, and/or classify their scientific pursuits as “non-scientific” when we initially wrote our mission statement. Which certainly makes “scientific men” a catchy phrase, don’t ya think?
The statement expresses two purposes for this publication. The first is “to place before the general public the grand results of Scientific Work and Scientific Discovery; and to urge the claims of Science to a more general recognition in Education and in Daily Life”. Today this is as important as it has ever been — although members of the public have important considerations to lay before scientists, and Nature reflects them also.
Blah, blah, obligatory words about pretending it matters to the majority of the scientific community to communicate with the non-scientific public even though the entire promotion, tenure, and grant-awarding system offers no credit for this type of work. Oddly enough, women are often interested in doing this kind of work. You know, all that outreach crap to young girls…
The second thrust was expressed as follows: “to aid Scientific men themselves, by giving early information of all advances made in any branch of Natural knowledge throughout the world, and by affording them an opportunity of discussing the various Scientific questions which arise from time to time.”
I’m telling you, when we wrote this paragraph, we just sat around and howled for 15 minutes. It was a totally Freudian slip to characterize the second purpose – the one having to do with “scientific men” – as “the second thrust” but once it was in print we fell in love with it.
In printing the statement verbatim every week as we have done, making it clear when it originated, we have hitherto assumed that readers will excuse the wording in the interests of historical integrity. But feedback from readers of both sexes indicates that the phrase, even when cited as a product of its time, causes displeasure. Such signals have been occasional but persistent, and a response is required. There is a convention within the English language by which writers quoting text can indicate their view that a particular phrase is inappropriate. That is to insert sic, a Latin word meaning ‘thus’, after the phrase — in effect expressing the sentiment ‘alas, dear reader, this is what was said’.
We thought our readers would be pleased with a weekly, in-your-face reminder of the history of discrimination built in to the journal from its earliest beginnings. But the harridans have been storming the gates, and they’ve even managed to round up a few men. So we are going to resort to an incredibly ridiculous use of a Latin word as a means of pretending to address their concerns while simultaneously trivializing and dismissing them. There is a convention among sexist English speakers – intentional and unintentional – of pretending that language issues are trivial while defending unto the death the continued use of sexist language by any means available. Historically, women were denied access to education, and the study of Latin was thought inappropriate for them. This contributed to their being shut out of science because many scientific works were written in Latin. So it’s just kind of ironic, isn’t it, that we’re going to use a Latin word to deny them access to our mission statement, isn’t it?
This is what we will do in the mission statement from now on. The small, belated change takes place against the vast backdrop of a scientific world where the upper echelons of academia, academies and prestigious awards are still numerically greatly dominated by men, and where outright discrimination can still rear its ugly head (see page 749). In this context, the insertion of a Latin word in a couple of paragraphs may be a tiny step: but it is at least one in the right direction.
Who needs outright discrimination? It’s so much more pleasant and civilized to discriminate while pretending to be inclusive. It’s just one tiny step sideways, but in the right direction to deflect real and meaningful change. It’s just our small way of saying “patriarchy RULES!”

  1. John Wilkins
    August 19, 2007 at 9:35 pm

    Or, it may be they just did the best they could with two contradictory goals – one to be fair to women in science, and the other to maintain historical continuity with what is pretty much the oldest general science journal in the world.
    There is a lot of actual science in the early editions that is no longer acceptable, but they shouldn’t go rewrite that, either. On the other hand, if they are revisiting any of those issues, they have to accept the older, lfawed, versions.
    As a historian of sorts, of science, (or is that a historian of science, of sorts?) I understand the desire not to revise history. As a humanist, I understand the desire to not exclude women. I would have done a new statement, but I don’t think that you can read what you have done fairly.
    On the other hand, they are English, so maybe you are right…

  2. August 19, 2007 at 9:56 pm

    I’m sorry, John. I don’t have a lot of patience for the historical-integrity-as-a-reason-to-use-exclusive-language argument. What if it originally said “scientific white men”? Would you be comfortable with retaining that for historical continuity?

  3. August 20, 2007 at 12:57 am

    Perhaps we need a t-shirt that says, “Nature [sic]”.
    With “alas…” on the back ;).

  4. August 20, 2007 at 7:50 am

    I am a Scientist first, and a Feminist second (since my mother, a teacher and editor, was a very active Feminist in the 1950s before it was fashionable).
    My wife is a Physics professor, a discipline particularly dominated by men, including her insufferable and essentially unpublishable Chairman.
    When my wife asked to take Calculus in school, the teacher suggested that it was really for boys.
    She answered correctly:
    (1) I am taking Calculus whether you like it or not;
    (2) I shall do better than all the boys;
    (3) Thus demonstrating why you should never say that absurd thing to anyone else again.
    I suppose that her teacher read Nature. Would a [sic] have had the same effect as my wife’s direct confrontation?

  5. March 12, 2008 at 9:22 am

    Jonathan Van Post’s story about his wife’s comment to her calculus teacher engenders two conflicting reactions in me. My first reaction was to admire her for standing up to her calculus teacher. Upon contemplation, though, I find myself wondering, what if she didn’t do better than all the boys in such an unavoidably obvious way? What would be the take home message then? In other words, Jonathan’s comment seems to support rather than denounce a system where women must be more productive (2.5 times more productive, apparently) to be perceived as equally productive as men.

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