UPDATE: Reader Enrico called this article to my attention; it’s very relevant to Scientific American’s claims here, which it doesn’t support. Click to read (and subscribe if you read regularly):
Ritchie parses the many meanings of this slogan, but here’s the one that Scientific American appears to use:
The first point they might be making is what we might call the argument from inevitability. “There’s no way around it. You’re being naive if you think you could stop science from being political. It’s arrogance in the highest degree to think that you are somehow being ‘objective’, and aren’t a slave to your biases.”
But this is a weirdly black-and-white view. It’s not just that something “is political” (say, a piece of research done by the Pro-Life Campaign Against Abortion which concludes that the science proves human life starts at conception) or “is not political” (say, a piece of research on climate change run by Martians who have no idea about Earth politics). There are all sorts of shades of grey – and our job is to get as close to the “not political” end as possible, even in the knowledge that we might never get fully get there.
The old saying goes that “all science is political”, a saying that is true only if you stretch the meaning of either “science” or “political”. I’m baffled, for instance, to understand how my work on the genetics of hybrid sterility in Drosophila is political. But don’t worry: the ideologues will find a way to make it so. “You’re doing your work in the milieu of a culture,” they’ll babble, “and decisions about what to fund and publish are explicitly political.” Blah blah blah.
But this trope has just been taken up by the editors of Scientific American, which, as you know, has gone “progressive leftist” (aka “woke”) over the last couple of years. I’ve called them out on this a number of times (see all my posts here)—not only for littering a science magazine with politics that are irrelevant to the magazine’s original mission, but also for doing so in a silly way. The silliness has involved, for example, accusations that Gregor Mendel was a racist and a pompous rant about why the term “Jedi” was inappropriate for social justice work (“JEDI” had been use to stand for “Justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion”). Finally, the magazine has made editorial claims that are either dubious or false (see here for some), including the equation of inequities with structural racism.
Several people have gone after the magazine for its transformation into an arm of wokeness. Besides me, they include Michael Shermer, who wrote over 200 columns for the magazine, but was given a pink slip because he was deemed ideologically impure (see his video on the issue here).
Now, apparently stung by the criticism, the editors of the magazine have written an editorial explaining their wokeness. The title below tells the tale. Every story, they claim, is a science story, including stories about social justice. (What they should have said is that “every social justice story is a science story.”) Either way, their defensiveness doesn’t address the fact that people read the magazine largely or entirely for the science, and can get social justice rants in a gazillion other places. And in response to the criticism of both inappropriateness and scientific accuracy, they promulgate still more scientific inaccuracy and then blame the criticism on—yes, you got it—”wealthy white men”. When reader Barry read this defense, he asked me: “Did Scientific American write this as a response to you?” Well, I’m not the only objector, but I think I had a role in it, and for that I’m pleased.
Click to read:
Here’s their defense:
Critics sometimes tell us that Scientific American has strayed from what might be called “classical science content” and is wading into subject areas where we don’t belong.
This claim bubbles up most often when we publish stories related to social justice or human rights—on the research supporting health care for transgender people, for instance, or abortion as basic medical care. A Twitter user replied to an opinion piece against forcing trans girls to play on boys’ sports teams by writing, “You should probably move everything back to science, facts and stats and leave the ‘wokness’ [SIC], narrative skewing and agenda setting behind. It’s not good for your credibility.”
And in response to a recent job listing that described our commitment to diversity and inclusion, someone else tweeted: “Advancing DEI & Social Justice is not something any truth-seeking institution or organization should prioritize.”
These detractors are telling us to “stay in our lane,” that scientific inquiry is a pure, clean, completely objective enterprise, and that what we publish should be devoid of politics or the perspectives of people who are affected by the culture of scientific research. But the truth is that science is relevant to every element of society, including policy and politics.
As a publication committed to explaining the world around us, that means that every lane is our lane.
In other words, they are free to editorialize about anything they want, for our world is an empirical world and thus everything in the world is “scientific”. But this misses the two relevant points above: people don’t WANT in-your-face wokeism in a magazine devoted to popularizing science, and, second, their editorializing is purely one-sided (they rejected my offer to write an op-ed) and makes dubious claims. I’ll give you one of those claims in a minute. But shouldn’t op-eds in a science magazine, even if you have to run them, allow for different points of view. Why not a column explaining why E. O. Wilson and Gregor Mendel were not racists.
I’m not doubting that science has implications for morality. If you think abortion is okay up to the point when a fetus becomes viable, then determining when it’s viable, which will change with medical advances, can affect your views of abortion. I’m objecting to both the inclusion of one-sided editorials as well as the poor research and dubious claims that to into them.
Here’s one of the “important social issues” that they claim to clarify in their article (this was not from an op-eds):
A recent feature article we published challenged some of the popular perception of Viking culture as male-first, might-always. Michèle Hayeur Smith, an anthropological archaeologist at Brown University found that Viking women controlled the production of tradable textiles, making them economic leaders in this society that is romanticized by white supremacists and incels (which stands for “involuntary celibates” and is an identity claimed by misogynist groups).
You can judge the “importance” of this finding, but note the emphasis on “white supremacists”, “incels” and “misogynists”. This isn’t pure science: it’s using history to reinforce an ideology. They also justify the history of their magazine, and their endorsement of Biden:
And here’s one item that’s misleading:
Using data-driven reasoning and analysis, science has solved problems and given us answers to major societal questions. For instance, after sequencing the human genome in 2001, the researchers who analyzed our strings of genetic code showed there were no significant differences among humans corresponding to racial categories. This helped change the narrative around the inherent meaning of race—that it is a social construct, not a biological one.
Even “self described race” by Americans has a biological meaning but, more important, such an idea leads to the rejection of geographically distinct populations as having any relevant biological differences, which is not true. (I don’t use the word “race”—I prefer “ethnicity”—because “race” is misleading, wrong in its classical construal, and also has a fraught history, but even in its classical misleading usage it has some connection with biology, for self-identified “whites,” “blacks”, “Hispanics” and “Asians” can be distinguished by a subset of genes with nearly 100% accuracy.).
In 2020, the editors of Scientific American endorsed Joe Biden for president. A Twitter user said: “Getting political means getting biased and a magazine that has ‘Scientific’ in its name should not be biased.” In truth, we have a long history of weighing in on divisive political issues. In April 1950, the magazine was set to publish an article written by physicist Hans Bethe (who had worked on the Manhattan Project) that was critical of the development of the hydrogen bomb. When the federal Atomic Energy Commission got wind of the manuscript, agents burned all 3,000 copies of the issue that contained the article. More than 30 years later, we published technical criticisms, also by Bethe and other physicists, of a space-based missile defense system known as Star Wars.
Note that they mention twice that they’re responding to Twitter users! Yes, of course Trump was odious, but he was not odious for scientifically-related reasons, but for moral and political ones—political considerations that had little to do with science.
But below is the most telling paragraph in the piece, the one where they say that people like me are telling them to “shut up”—a form of censorship. And those people are old rich white men (what race, sex, and wealth have to do with it is beyond me). Yes, I am criticizing them for polluting their magazine with irrelevant political views (many of which I agree with), and for writing wonky editorials. I am not censoring them! My view is that, as a science magazine, they should be institutionally neutral, like a university. Why? Because infusing science with woke ideology, and implying that the former justifies the latter (or vice versa) will serve only to reduce the public’s respect for science. Remember, horrible though it is, nearly half of Americans like Trump and other Republicans. Is it worth associating progressive Leftism with science in a way that makes people see science as a political venture, many losing respect for it, at the expense of educating people about science?
Scientific American has made its decision: parade its progressive Leftist virtue while turning many off the magazine, and perhaps off science in general. But the old rich white men (LOL) will not be silenced either, for everyone has a right to criticize the magazine. Criticism is not censorhip, for crying out loud!
Can you believe this?:
Telling us or scientists or other science writers to “stay in our lane” is a tactic to silence people with relevant expertise from weighing in on divisive issues. In some cases, the criticism attempts to maintain the power of wealthy, white, male members of society. This criticism comes most often when we report on science relevant to the health and well-being of disempowered groups, suggesting it is not a pure rejection of the fact that there is science behind social issues. Science is everywhere, and we at Scientific American are going to continue to cover the science relevant to social justice and the most vital questions facing human society.