Counterpoint: Reckoning With The Ghosts of YSM’s Past

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In 1903, Yale undergraduate Almer Mayo Newhall wrote on “The Position of the Negro within the Human Family.” The piece opens with a promise to inspect “what characterizes the inferiority of the Negro to the white man”—an “inferiority” which, by its final assertion, justifies that the North’s “slavery legislation was a failure.” The article appeared in Vol. IX No. VI of the Yale Scientific Monthly, the precursor to the Yale Scientific Magazine.

Newhall’s piece is a damning, though hardly isolated, artifact within an extensive archive of racist scientific publishing at Yale and beyond. At the same time that the American Eugenics Society opened its headquarters on Hillhouse Avenue and North Carolina was enacting its first forced sterilization campaign in 1929, YSM was printing articles about “The Need of Immigration Restriction” and “extremely primitive, unpatriotic, seemingly indolent and childish … Africans of to-day.” On one hand, the insidious context deflects blame from the undergraduates writing for Yale Scientific Monthly at the time. Systemic racism in the United States did not originate with scientific journalism, which reflects scientific research, which reflects public discourse. But publishing is not a passive process either. What gets published directly shapes public discourse, future research, and the policies that govern our social structures. And so scientific communication, if done poorly, reproduces harm and injustice.

So, where did Newhall go wrong? For one, it’s bad science. He predicates neural behavior on phrenology, the shape of one’s skull. He employs dubious-at-best methodologies, claiming that the “trained eye” can detect more convolutions in the white man’s brain. He uses evidence that is simply false, arguing, at one point, that Black people have pharyngeal pouches that white people lack. And he invents fictitious history when his evidence fails, imagining “the Negro in his own native jungle,” brought into “contact with civilization” by Europeans. Not to mention that the “white man and the Negro” is fundamentally a false dichotomy, which dooms the entire article’s logic before it begins.

Newhall’s article should have never been approved for publication in a scientific magazine. But the conversation shouldn’t revolve around whether Newhall’s article used faulty induction (it did), or whether race science is a legitimate science (it’s not). The conversation should revolve around whether certain research queries, however rigorous, are simply morally bad questions. This is where the editorial role of a public-facing magazine like the Yale Scientific bears a different responsibility than a reviewer for an academic journal like Nature. As journalists first, and scientists second, we should recognize that “science for the sake of science” is never enough, because science never exists in a vacuum. 

The demand to simply have more moral sense gets lost among structures of Eurocentrism and exclusion which govern scientific communication. In journalism—a field that already favors the white and wealthy—scientific coverage is among the least diverse. According to the latest Pew Research Center report, only three percent of media journalists covering science and technology identify as Black, compared to the nationwide six percent. And for members of the National Association of Science Writers, in 2021, only one percent identified as Black.

Beyond diversity at the editorial level, scientific communication is—and will remain—inaccessible if it limits itself to what gets published in leading research journals. A paper costs thousands of dollars to publish, and research itself is getting costlier. Such economic barriers are compounded for Black and women scientists, who are less likely to receive grants from the National Institutes of Health. While it’s easier to source stories from the front pages of Nature, these findings originate from scientists who benefit by affiliation with well-endowed institutions. Meanwhile, on a global scale, the landscape of publishing marginalizes non-Western scholarship, stereotypically deemed “unscientific.” While there is invaluable knowledge possessed by indigenous populations about environmental sustainability, or by scientists in the global South on tropical diseases, they never receive the limelight of research journals. Here, scientific magazine boards have the capacity to recognize—and rectify—the inequities that arise at the level of academic publishing by broadening who is credited as an “expert.”
While DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) is often demeaned as a corporate buzzword, diversifying these stories matters. Scientific journalism is the link between academic research and public perception—and in the scientific world, attention is currency. What gets published goes on to influence what research gets funded in the future. By being deliberate about these choices, the Yale Scientific Magazine can reach beyond the confines of its past, working toward a safer and fairer future.