Nature Sticks One Toe In the Early 20th Century

By way of the daily Chronicle of Higher Education, I learned that Nature has made a quantum leap into the...well...sort of into the early part of the 20th century.

In an editorial published online this afternoon, the journal announced that it would amend its mission statement, which appears each week next to its table of contents.

The original statement, which dates to 1869, says that Nature's mission is, among other things, "to aid scientific men themselves, by giving early information of all advances made in any branch of natural knowledge throughout the world."

In these tres modern times, with women threatening to take over everywhere and feminizing the hell out of science, Nature has been forced to agree to a change in this language. How will they accomplish this emasculating move? Will they now say "scientists"? "Scientific men and women"?

No they will not.

Nature decided to solve its problem by inserting "[sic]" after "scientific men." The editorial explains that the Latin term says, in effect, "alas, dear reader, this is what was said."

You and I are living in the year 2007, Zuskateers. Here in the 21st century, we are aware that gender-inclusive language is not such a big deal, and a man's balls do not suddenly drop off his body, nor does his penis shrink 3 inches, if he or the scientific body (ahem) he belongs to uses inclusive language. **

But alas! dear reader, over at Nature, it is only the early part of the 20th century. Women have just recently gotten the vote, and the men are not sure if they'll use it responsibly. This whole "women doing science" business might just be a fad; best not to overreact. Given a little time, all those flappers might just go back to the kitchen and leave the scientific men alone.

Some 21st century physicists are interested in studying how Nature has managed to warp the space-time continuum so strongly. Others claim it is nothing new; similar phenomena crop up all over the place, in science and engineering departments and corporations across the land.

One physicist, Iva Seenital, snorted and said, "good god, it's a daily occurrence around here. I'll be walking down the hall and whoosh! suddenly I'm in the early 20th century! A few times I swear I've been in time-warps back to the mid-1800's." Her colleagues insisted this was impossible, whereupon she rolled her eyes and strode off muttering something under her breath that sounded like "they wouldn't recognize institutionalized sexism if it walked up and smacked them on their foreheads".

"She's just sort of crazy," Seenital's colleague Butima Gudperson opined. "Yes," said Imzo Kluliss. "Anytime you mention this gender stuff she gets all riled up. She takes it so personally." Seenital's department head, Kent Lowrstandards concluded "She can't be objective about it at all. She's a very emotional person. And she's not really that good of a scientist, so how can you believe what she says about time-warps anyway? She's just pushing that idea because she doesn't have much of her own work to talk about. This Nature thing is an isolated phenomenon and in any case we are certain that it is of no importance in the end. After all, it's just words."

And since it's just words, it might as well be just men. At least that's what they tell me here in the early 20th century.

At the time of blogging, the actual editorial was unavailable to me behind a paywall. If women were involved in this decision at Nature that's just sad beyond belief. Either they went along with their continued exclusion, or they didn't have enough influence to get the morons on staff to agree to say "scientists". They wouldn't even have had to put the W word in there if their manhood was that fragile.

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I'd assume that they simply didn't want to modify the text of their 140-year old mission statement. The (sic) points out the datedness of the phrase and I think anyone reading it will understand the significance.

I think keeping the original text serves as a reminder of the mindset back in the day, and the sic how we view things today as a contrast. Changing the original text simply sweeps things under the rug and pretends nothing bad ever happened.

The editorial in Nature contains the delightful implication that the phrase "men of science" was, for a brief moment, entirely appropriate and with-the-times - apparently women scientists didn't exist before 1850!

Do other magazines make such a huge fuss about minor changes to the wording of their mission statements? It seems very bizarre to put such weight into trivialities. One might almost suspect them of having other motives.

There have ALWAYS been women scientists. Just because they weren't recognized and you haven't heard about them doesn't mean they weren't there. The phrase men of science was ALWAYS exclusionary. And it was so for a purpose - to keep women out. Nature was always out of date on this issue.

I have the text of the article:

Men [sic]

Our 1869 mission statement is out of date.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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."

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'.

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. â 

Page 725 in the current edition

If the original had been written in such beautiful language that changing the word "men" would render it horribly clunky and unharmonious, I'd understand their decision--except that a) "sic" is rather clunky itself, and b) it's not an outstandingly brilliant or euphonious piece of writing to start out with.

I am rather unimpressed with their "tiny step."

Ah Zuska, you've been in extremely fine form lately. It is writing like this that made me fall in love with you a couple of years ago.

I think it's o.k. Very honest. After all, it IS sick!

Can we all say "cop out"? That is just lame beyond belief. I don't understand why they didn't just replace "men of science" with "scientists". Are they afraid that might include non-human scientists? Alien scientists?

I've taken 4 years of latin, and last I checked [sic] doesn't mean "Alas, dear reader, that was what was said".

No, what it means, according to both my old latin/english dictionary is Thus; so, and gives the definition as Used to indicate that a quoted passage, especially one containing an error or unconventional spelling, has been retained in its original form or written intentionally. The Merriam-Webster dictionary definition is intentionally so written.

I like the or written intentionally and intentionally so written aspects. See??? With the proper interpretation of [sic], everyone is happy. Nature is betting that with the proper spin on the word [sic] they are making all the feminist harpies happy, whilst meanwhile all the males can laugh behind their sleeves; we wrote it that way intentionally in the first place, and we still mean it...hee hee. Man, they've got some great spin-doctors over at Nature. Alas, dear reader indeed...

If they had inserted [sick] instead, I would have been happy with the change.

As an aside, when I was a kid I thought the Merriam-Webster dictionary was compiled by a woman named Merriam (I have an aunt Merriam) and a guy named Webster. Alas, my concept of gender parity in the making of dictionaries was dashed in my senior year of high school :-(

As I understand it, (sic) is used to say "the error is there in the original that I'm quoting, and I don't want you to think I'm so dumb I didn't spot it". So I guess it does what Nature says it does (not what Absinthe's conspiracy theory says it does).

Nonetheless, I cannot for the life of me see why they wouldn't just put in "scientists" and say, hey look, we updated our mission statement because it was no longer reflective of our real aims. That's what you do with outdated or broken things, right -- update or replace them?

Zuska is inclined to see sexism at work here, and I have to agree even though I think the folks at Nature are generally well-intentioned and I'm inclined to cut them some slack on most things. It seems that, for the people making the decision, tradition ("let's not change the statement 'cos it was written in 1869 and that's really cool") outweighs feminist concerns about inclusive language. I think this is the unconscious kind of sexism: our society does think traditions going back to 1869 are pretty cool, and our society does think feminism generally is not very important -- so we absorb these values/attitudes and, unless we are consciously on the lookout for them, we tend to perpetuate them.

My wife, as a Physics professor, has her own tales to tell of earning $25,000/year less than the man with no more degrees and many fewer publications, in the same project. And of suffering under a grotesque sexist male university department Chairman, who has had only one refereed paper published in his life (as GoogleScholar establishes), and is intentionally cruel to my wife (10 such publications by her pop out of GoogleScholar immediately). Of course, I'm also biased here, because he intentionally cut me from the faculty, and I have more publications than any 10 other people at this tiny university. Getting rid of me was a politically feasible way to attack my wife, because (although the financial and academic damage to our family was roughly equal) he could not be accused of sexism in dismissing another man.

I'm wondering now if (sic) is used more by men or by women, in ironic pseudoapologies?

One of the better portrayals by a man of the institutionalized academic prejudice against women is by Greg Benford in Timescape. Timescape is a 1980 novel by science fiction writer Gregory Benford (with unbilled co-author Hilary Foister). It won the 1980 Nebula Award for Best Novel and the 1981 John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. The novel was widely hailed by both critics of science fiction and mainstream literature for its fusion of detailed character development and interpersonal drama with more standard science fiction fare such as time travel and ecological issues.

An elderly woman wanders through some scenes at "UC La Jolla", and is dismissed by the men as no more than a dotty old lady. She turns out to be nothing of the kind, and Greg explains that this part of the novel was based on his actual observations of the sexist treatment of Maria Goeppert-Mayer (June 28, 1906 - February 20, 1972). She was, also from Wikipedia summary, a German-born American physicist. In 1963 she received the Nobel Prize in Physics for proposing the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus, becoming one of only two women to receive a Nobel Prize in Physics (the other being Marie Curie).

Also, consider Lise Meitner (November 17, 1878 - October 27, 1968), whom as Wikipedia summarizes was an Austrian born, later on Swedish physicist who studied radioactivity and nuclear physics.

Meitner was part of the team that discovered nuclear fission, an achievement for which her colleague Otto Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize. Meitner is often mentioned as one of the most glaring examples of scientific achievement that was ostensibly overlooked by the Nobel committee. A 1997 Physics Today study concluded that Meitner's omission was "a rare instance in which personal negative opinions apparently led to the exclusion of a deserving scientist" from the Nobel.

It is telling that they didn't even raise the possibility of changing "men of science" to "scientists", even if only to then reject it.

By PhysioProf (not verified) on 17 Aug 2007 #permalink

Actually, I'd hate them to change it to "scientist" because that leaves little room for amateurs. At least "scientific men" is generalizable to those outside the field with a bent in that direction.

I vote for "scientific men" -> "scientific minds"

Of course, no one ever accused the editors of Nature of being creative with words, and I don't imagine there's any reason to start now.

I'm skimming, but, really, they're going to put "sic" in their mission statement? I too, in general cut people slack on this issue. But, "sic" ? that's just weird.


Now that I've actually read the patronizing condescending editorial in full (thanks, Wilkins!) I totally want to puke on the shoes of the Nature editors even more than before.

I am sorry, but this is very, very insulting. I'll be posting a new entry with my "translation" of the editorial.

I am an editor at Nature, and I want to correct a couple of points here.
First, our mission statement was updated a long time ago to reflect the modern world, and has for several years been available freely on the "about the journal" pages of the Nature website at: You can also see a (free access) link there to the original statement. So do read these before you ruin your shoes.

If anyone cares to read the editorial, which is not behind a subscription wall and (unlike the version in this comment thread) is officially available on Nautilus, our author blog, at:,
they will see that what is being corrected is NOT the mission statement, there has been a modern version of that for some years, as I mention above, but the archaic use of a term in the statement.

Many of the comments above have completely missed these points, none of which involve material behind subscription walls.

Here is Nature's current mission statement, which has been our mission statement for some years, and on our website (free access) for that time too:
Nature's mission statement
First, to serve scientists through prompt publication of significant advances in any branch of science, and to provide a forum for the reporting and discussion of news and issues concerning science. Second, to ensure that the results of science are rapidly disseminated to the public throughout the world, in a fashion that conveys their significance for knowledge, culture and daily life.

PS, I have written a response to some of the comments above, but it seems to have got caught up in your filter system.
Basically, come and look at our site before writing things about us that have misunderstood. We aren't correcting our current mission statement (see previous comment), but our our original one, in response to comments from some (male and female, UK and non UK) readers.

(Nature is not "English", by the way, as we say on our cover in print and online each week, we are international. We publish in Tokyo, USA and UK, and have offices all over the US and elsewhere.)

Maxine, sorry your comment got hung up in moderation - having more than one link in a comment will trip the spam meter. And thanks for your concern, but it's not my shoes you need to worry about, it's the shoes of Nature editors. I never puke on my own shoes when someone else has been offensive.

You say

what is being corrected is NOT the mission statement, there has been a modern version of that for some years, as I mention above, but the archaic use of a term in the statement.

This is a bit disingenuous. First, the "archaic term" is more properly called a sexist and exclusive use of language ("scientific men" is hardly archaic). Second, it hasn't really been corrected. Third, it is the ORIGINAL mission statement, which the editorial states continues to be printed each week in the table of contents, despite your pointing us to a nice new mission statement available to those who seek it out somewhere online. The original mission statement, with its sexist phrasing unchanged, is what is still going to be landing in peoples' mailboxes each week, isn't it?