Why science and its journals should remain free of ideology: an example from Nature

March 22, 2023 • 10:30 am

It’s one thing for a newspaper to take political stands, but that’s okay only in the editorial section. So long as the “news” section—the reporting itself—remains untainted by political leanings or obvious bias, people can still trust the news, even if they use editorials to diss entire papers like the NYT as “authoritarian leftist” or the Wall Street Journal as “right wing”. The important thing is to keep the editorial section completely separate from the news.

But it’s another thing entirely for scientific journals to take political stands, and this post should show you why. For when you endorse a candidate that liberals like, like Joe Biden, you’re going to turn off the people who don’t like Joe Biden. That’s okay for newspapers, as their readership probably leans the same way as the paper itself. But writing off a scientific journal as “politically biased” has potentially worse effects than writing off a newspaper, for the former can cause people to distrust the science itself.

This is what happened to Scientific American, which, once free from politics, has under its new leadership decided to repeatedly take woke stands in their editorials, and that has made the whole magazine lose credibility. Can you trust their judgement about what science they choose to publish if their editorials accuse Mendel of racism? (They did that, but of course it’s a lie.) Best to keep political views out of science journals, whose purpose, after all, is not to render political opinions but to convey scientific truth.

But it’s even worse when it happens in a serious journal like Nature, for, unlike Scientific American, Nature publishes new scientific results. By steering clear of ideological stands in the rest of the journal, it can at least be free of the criticism that it’s publishing biased science.

And for years Nature pretty much refrained from politics, probably because it realized that its mission was the dissemination of science, not social engineering. The journal was first published in 1869, and remained fairly unpolitical until 2016, when the journal wrote an op-ed saying “HIllary Clinton will make a fine U.S. President.” It wasn’t exactly an official endorsement, but it came close to it. After that, the endorsements began.

That came in 2020, when, bucking tradition, Nature endorsed Joe Biden for President of the United States, publishing a piece on October 14 called, “Why Nature supports Joe Biden for U.S. President“. Of course I endorsed Joe Biden, too, but I think that scientific journals, like universities, should remain viewpoint neutral—except when their political views are related to the mission of finding scientific truth. Endorsements only hurt the brand, and also make it seem that the mission of science, like that of universities, might be more than just seeking the truth. (After all, do you think cereal brands should put political endorsements on Wheaties boxes?)

And loss of scientific credibility did in fact happen. Nature itself admits this in an article published two days ago, “Political endorsements can affect scientific credibility.” Here’s of the piece, whose supporting data are summarized in Nature’s tweet below:

How did Nature’s endorsement affect people who viewed it? Writing in Nature Human Behaviour, Zhang2 describes an experiment that asks this question, revealing that some who saw the endorsement lost confidence in the journal as a result. This topic is important because, if people believe that political forces might introduce bias or inaccuracy into research claims, they might also think it is riskier for them to trust that research.

There have been efforts to understand how public confidence in science is affected by such concerns (see go.nature.com/3zfcpxh), and to mitigate any negative effects of this type of politicization3. But there have been fewer studies of how political endorsements that specifically come from inside the scientific community affect science’s credibility. To my knowledge, the current study is the first to test this experimentally.

Zhang’s experiment involved a survey that was completed by more than 4,000 US citizens in the summer of 2021 — about 6 months after Biden took office as president. Early in the survey, participants were asked about their level of support for Joe Biden and Donald Trump, and how likely they thought it was that Nature would have endorsed a candidate in the election. Later, participants were randomly assigned to view either Nature’s endorsement of Biden or an announcement of new visual designs for its website and print articles. They were then asked for their views of Biden, Trump, Nature and US scientists in general, and whether they would choose to obtain scientific information about COVID-19 from Nature or from other sources.

Overall, the study provides little evidence that the endorsement changed participants’ views of the candidates. However, showing the endorsement to people who supported Trump did significantly change their opinion of Nature. When compared with Trump supporters who viewed Nature’s formatting announcement, Trump supporters who viewed the endorsement rated Nature as significantly less well informed when it comes to “providing advice on science-related issues facing the society” (Fig. 1). Those who viewed the endorsement also rated Nature significantly lower as an unbiased source of information on contentious or divisive issues. There was no comparable positive effect for Biden supporters.

So endorsing Biden made Republicans more distrustful of the journal. Is that surprising? The data are summarized in the tweet below, but here’s the full graph with caption. The length of the bars show the percentage of people (Trump and Biden supporters, divided by whether they had viewed or not viewed the endorsement) who rated the journal from “not informed at all” up to “extremely informed.” Note that the pink bars predominate at the lower ratings of credibility, and the blue at higher levels of credibility:

(From Nature): Figure 1 | Exposure to a political endorsement affects how some people view Nature. Zhang conducted a survey to examine how viewing Nature’s endorsement of Joe Biden for US president affected supporters of Donald Trump and Biden in the United States. Participants were asked a range of questions, one of which was ‘In your opinion, how informed are editors of the journal Nature, when it comes to providing advice on science-related issues facing the society?’. Trump supporters who viewed the political endorsement rated Nature as significantly less-well informed than did Trump supporters in a control group. By contrast, the endorsement had little effect on Biden supporters. (Figure adapted from Fig. 2 of ref. 2.)

Nature’s tweet:

The lesson? This (from the same article):

The current study provides evidence that, when a publication whose credibility comes from science decides to politicize its content, it can damage that credibility. If this decreased credibility, in turn, reduces the impact of scientific research published in the journal, people who would have benefited from the research are the worse for it. I read Zhang’s work as signalling that Nature should avoid the temptation to politicize its pages. In doing so, the journal can continue to inform and enlighten as many people as possible.

QED and duhhh. . .

So what does the journal do in light of this conclusion? They go against their own advice! Here’s a piece published two days ago:

Now of course they couch the whole thing in terms of promoting reason, which could be good for science, but you can always say that the candidate you like is more “reasonable” than the other candidate. After all, that’s why you endorse somebody: because you think they listen to reason more than the other candidate. From the new article:

We live in troubling times for research and for societies, and Nature’s endorsement for the November 2020 US election — and for Brazil’s similarly pivotal election last October — should be viewed in that context. Influential political voices are eschewing rigorous evidence and interfering with or undermining the functioning of independent judicial and regulatory bodies that rely on rigorous science and evidence. This has been noticeable in other countries, too, including Brazil, India, Hungary and the United Kingdom. It’s hard to know whether this is a long-term trend or global phenomenon, or something specific to certain places and circumstances. These are questions that researchers are investigating. Scientists are also testing strategies for ways to bridge the political divides, as Nature reported in a Feature earlier this month (Nature615, 26–28; 2023).

Nature doesn’t often make political endorsements, and we carefully weigh up the arguments when considering whether to do so. When individuals seeking office have a track record of causing harm, when they are transparently dismissive of facts and integrity, when they threaten scholarly autonomy, and when they are disdainful of cooperation and consensus, it becomes important to speak up. We use our voice sparingly and always offer evidence to back up what we say. And, when the occasion demands it, we will continue to do so.

You can bet your sweet bippy that Nature is now in the endorsements business, regardless of what they say. And you know that they’ll endorse “progressive” candidates, which will further turn centrists and right-wingers away from science.

Yes, they can justify what they did, but Nature’s endorsement almost surely didn’t have an effect on the election. They admit that above! After all, the majority of American scientists are Democrats and donate to Democrats. It’s likely, then, though not certain, that the journal’s endorsement had a net negative effect: hurting the credibility of the journal (and of science) while not helping the candidate. Despite that, they’re going to keep on endorsing political candidates. They can’t help themselves!

This brings to mind the old quote, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” (This is often attributed to Albert Einstein but really comes from other sources.)

And here’s a snarky but relevant tweet:

h/t: Luana

35 thoughts on “Why science and its journals should remain free of ideology: an example from Nature

    1. I’m pessimistic Nature would see that result as a reason not to do it again. While Trump supporters were much less likely to have confidence in Nature, Biden supporters’ confidence increased a little bit. Because there are so many more of them in science than Trump supporters, the net effect may be to increase overall average confidence in the journal, and that more scientists increased than decreased confidence. So even though they’re contributing to polarization in science, and this seems regrettable to me, it’s not clear this is against their own commercial interests.

  1. It’s virtue signalling, and the woke cannot do other than virtue signal. Failing to signal hatred of Trump or support for BLM, or failure to declare TWAW, will get them ostracised by everyone else who is woke.

    1. “Virtue-signalling” may well be the quintessential idiocy of our time. Recently, NYC’s Met (increasingly “woke-ified” under the misadministration of the ghastly Max Hollein) re-classified the great (and lamentably under-appreciated) nineteenth-century Russian painter Kuindzhi/Kuinji as Ukrainian, when, in fact, he was of Greek ancestry.

    1. People like you are a danger to science. I voted for Trump. Am I no longer allowed to be a scientist now? Am I going to have to quit my job at university, retract all of my papers, and leave science now that Gordon Johnston is accusing me of being insane? And we all know that Gordon Johnston is the gate keeper to science! Only he decides who will be let in!

      1. We believers in science do wonder, and I ask respectfully, why you would vote for someone who is extremely anti-science,

        My mother is a staunch catholic, and if she told me her favorite doctor performed abortions on Thursdays, I’d ask her why she not only thinks he’s a great doctor, but why she’d go to him even if she thinks he is.

        1. Please provide evidence of this “anti-science” attitude. Also, please provide evidence that Biden is somehow an improvement.

          Note also that presidents are hired to run the country, not do research.

    2. There is a sad history of distinguished scientists who were fellow-travelers. (I actually wonder whether at times America would have become a Communist dictatorship if only successful academics had been allowed to vote).

      Politics is known as the mind killer. I expect scientists to be at their worst when they think about it. Political affiliation is too tribal and so strongly influenced by the environment that it is a poor measure of intelligence or character traits*. When you judge people on it, you are more likely bigoted than rational.

      * I remember many online atheists (teenagers?) who assumed that believers were obviously intellectually inferior, so that there was nothing to learn from them. Unsurprisingly, their prejudice did not make their views on religion especially informed.

  2. The loss of confidence by many in such publications as Scientific American, Nature, The Lancet, and JAMA (to name but a few) might well be described as an “own-goal” on their part, as they have brought about an unwelcome transformation of reporting about research and scholarship into weaponry in an ideological battle (properly waged in journals of opinion, political debates, etc), which should have no part in fields in which the sole criterion should be the pursuit of knowledge and the search for scientific understanding.

  3. Many years ago, I carried out an experiment related to this issue, although with opposite polarity, as it were. I served as “Chief of Protocol” in the campaign committee of a GOP candidate for a state office whom we described as a “Warren Harding Republican”. Our major campaign rally was held. accordingly, at the Warren Harding podium, behind the great ape house at the Seattle Zoo. At the rally, speaking in my capacity as an Associate Professor of Genetics, I concluded that our opponent’s chromosomes showed that he was “far too good for the office”. Unfortunately, no studies have appeared on how this campaign may have affected public confidence in either the science of Genetics, the Zoo, or the Republican Party.

  4. Hear hear. I had a back and forth with some far right person about how scientists “have an agenda”. Now his beef was mainly about the origin of the universe and about evolution, and how we are not lending weight to falsified claims. But imagine if this person was a Fox News anchor, and imagine if they made the connection that major scientific journals have come out to endorse Democratic candidates?
    So journals that are endorsing candidates are actually providing evidence that yes, scientists do have an agenda.

    1. I agree, and this agenda is dangerous to scientists. “Nature” is published by a private company so its editors can choose what risks they want to run by choosing a political side and the risks might be small. But for the rest of us working at publicly-funded institutions like universities the risks of this approach are bigger. Politicians decide how much funding goes to public universities and granting agencies, and it should come as no surprise that when universities follow this lead by choosing one side the politicians on the other side will respond for example by replacing board members, closing some departments and some areas of study or scholarship, and sacking faculty members. What’s happening at New College of Florida is a small example and I expect much worse is to come.

  5. What about scientists who do not support Biden or Trump? What about scientists who do not identify as democrat or republican? Are we allowed to remain neutral or will we be forced to choose sides? I’m so sick of being caught in the middle between two groups that hate each other. Each side is pointing the finger in the other direction and claiming the ‘others’ are lying. Who do I believe? Maybe both the left and the right are a bunch of cultist freaks? Maybe the only sane folks are the ones who do not identify with an ideology, because it seems like once someone identifies with an ideology they stop thinking critically and just let their ideology make decisions for them.

  6. My confidence in science and scientific journals has certainly been undermined in recent years. What does the most damage is when they espouse things that are obviously false, like saying that humans have more than two sexes, that males can become female or vice versa, that there are no differences in average behavior or aptitudes between the human sexes or between any human population groups, etc. How am I supposed to take them seriously after reading claims like that? Individual scientists’ Twitter posts about the evils of whiteness and the ubiquity of white racism don’t help either.

    I’m sure many scientists are still doing good work, but individual scientists are now suspect until proven otherwise, and the general enterprise of capital-S Science has tainted itself in my view by latching on to the new, woke religious dogma.

  7. More bad news. It looks like the National Academy of Sciences has been bitten by the woke zombie.

    Universities and other employers in the US science sector must adopt practices that foster a safe and inclusive community, finds a report1 from the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM), which outlines how such institutions can do so. The report calls for systemic change across multiple levels to account for the lengthy history of discrimination against people of colour and members of marginalized communities in the United States.

    Susan Fiske, co-chair of the committee behind the report, says that bias and discrimination in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM) is structural in the United States. This culture, she says, results in policies that reinforce each other and attitudes that perpetuate lifelong disadvantages for certain groups. “The converging data from surveys and experiments and observations tells us that you can’t fix it by fixing individuals,” says Fiske, who researches psychology and social policy at Princeton University in New Jersey.


      1. Yes Fiske is one of the last people I’d ask for advice about these problems and how to solve them.

        I often think of the comment on that blog post by the reader Plucky, who pointed out that when scientists start treating each other like guild members and use political means to protect the guild’s interests, it should come as no surprise when actual politicians start to pay attention and react to what seems like provocation.

  8. The risk is that any support for a politician or political party may prove to be a mistake. Politicians are often exposed for criminal acts, political parties may pivot their policies to attract supporters rather than stick to their principles.

    In the UK some national newspapers are still criticised for supporting Adlof Hilter or the slave trade, how might a scientific journal fare for taking a political stance?

  9. Why do we assume that a “journal”—which is simply a group of people–that takes explicit political stances and makes endorsements might be biased? Because there is a very long history of people shading the truth so that it reflects favorably on their “team” and its causes. Even when not done intentionally, the temptation to believe what one would like to be true (and discount what one hopes is not true) is too great in many people—and the behavior is even worse in a like-minded group. This used to be “Human Behavior 101”.

    Politics, like sex, can make otherwise smart people stupid. Best to refrain from public displays of either of them when acting in official capacity.

  10. These periodic virtue signals are related to the periodic outbreaks of presentism, attacks on the memory of past scientific pioneers (Galton, Fisher, Huxley, even Darwin) for their failure to anticipate social assumptions that became conventional long after their time.

    The intrusion of presentism into discussions (and journals) devoted to Science is particularly jarring, and ignorant. Scientists should understand particularly well that: (1) we stand on the shoulder of giants, but (2) our view of things evolves, including our
    view of matters not seen so well in the giants’ time. Oddly, this new custom of post-facto condemnation does not extend to questions of science itself. Nobody turns Newton’s picture to the wall because of his belief in alchemy. Nobody disparages Faraday, the father of electricity generation, because he didn’t know about nuclear power.

    1. It is strange how the whiteness of scientists is an unbearable, while we have little difficulty in dealing with their animosities towards other European ethnicities (including Jews), different Christian denominations, or dated attitudes towards half the population.

  11. I think it’s entirely proper that journals like Nature and Science comment on POLICY as it relates to scientific endeavour. Credibility is lost once they stoop to the tribalism of left/right red/blue that unfortunately dominates under first-past-the-post two-party systems. Indeed, I think that we would all be better served if journalism of all types focussed on policies (past, current and future) rather than the parties, leaders and personalities. IMHO.

  12. Whenever people say that X should remain free of ideology or politics, I read X should keep the ideology and politics I’m familiar and comfortable with and not have the ideology and politics I don’t like

  13. This is a problem, for sure, but the prevalence of “pay to play/publish” junk journals might be a worse one. Non-scientists and (horribly) MANY “science reporters” don’t seem to know the difference. Or anything about stats.

    HAHAH THEN they go work for The Guardian. That’s a British rag written by and for highly neurotic alcoholic middle aged English females it appears. Who failed elementary school science.
    I’m a lefty but I (hate) read TheGuardian – cheaper than being whipped by a dominatrix.

  14. The only reason for a science journal to comment on politics, is when those politics threaten the practice of science.

  15. A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.
    – Max Planck (Nobel Prize in Physics in 1918)

  16. But writing off a scientific journal as “politically biased” has potentially worse effects than writing off a newspaper, for the former can cause people to distrust the science itself.

    This is what happened to Scientific American

    I have never regarded Scientific American as a journal. In my mind (and I fully accept I might be wrong), a scientific journal is a publication for peer reviewed scientific papers. Politics should have no part in that process.

    Scientific American, on the other hand, is a magazine about science. I think articles that address science and society have a place in Scientific American and as such I think it is entitled to comment on the way science impacts or is impacted by politics. I think it i entitled to criticise politicians for anti-scientific opinions or policies. Not so Nature.

  17. You state “the majority of American scientists are Democrats and donate to Democrats”. I think it would be more accurate to say that since 2000 the majority of professionally employed American scientists are Democrats and donate to Democrats.

    During this same period the quality of research published by professionally employed American scientists has fallen sharply so that about 70% of peer reviewed journal articles are non-replicable or otherwise gibberish.

    Since the 1970s, the US govt has been spending more and more on science until it has largely crowded out all other sources of funding. This has over time changed the focus of professionally employed American scientists to securing the next round of govt funding. Part of this is publishing positive results (i.e. I found something instead of I disproved something), which has led to the increased quantity and decreased quality of scientific papers.

    As professional employed scientists have gradually become govt employees it is only natural that most would align with the party of govt.

  18. Yep. I dropped SciAm when it started to call for demonetization of Youtube perspectives it didn’t agree with. That was is no longer reportage, but political warfare. And as with all power plays someone is NEXT in the crosshairs.

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