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:
In 2020, Nature endorsed Joe Biden in the US presidential election. A survey finds that viewing the endorsement did not change people’s views of the candidates, but caused some to lose confidence in Nature and in US scientists generally https://t.co/lvrgXmsrl5
— nature (@Nature) March 20, 2023
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:
The slow corruption of Nature.
Nature, pre-2020: "We are a scientific journal. Politics has no place in our pages."
2020-2022: "We are a scientific journal that is committed to Antiracism. This is not the same as being political."
2023: "We will endorse political candidates." https://t.co/IHVwoxGjuR
— i/o (formerly Monitoring Bias) (@monitoringbias) March 21, 2023