Posted this week to the r/science subreddit: “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.” Wow that seems bad! I guess Nature never should have made that endorsement, huh? As many people pointed out in the comments, “You lose trust trying to step outside of what you’re designed to do. Nature is a scientific publication, we probably see political insight as confusing.” And “When people are reading about something completely unrelated to politics and it gets wedged in anyways, it tends to turn people’s opinions worse on whatever matter is brought in.” And “it’s a bit worrying for non-political entities make endorsements for one party leader or the other.” And “Science needs to be as independent as possible from politics.”
That is just so true. Science shouldn’t touch anything political! That’s why real scientists only study the following list of apolitical topics, like:
Critical medical research and vaccine development
If you just listen to these videos without watching them, I should mention that each of the fields of study I just named were accompanied with evidence of Republican lawmakers attacking scientists for studying them (and as always you can find links to all my sources in the full transcript linked to my patreon below): in other words, Republican politicians politicizing those fields of study. And so according to many people, once those topics are “political,” they are no longer valid topics for scientists to discuss.
But that’s not the way to progress. We cannot cede ground to antiscience politicians, backed up by the gargantuan misinformation machine that is Fox News and its ilk, which have been working hard for years to convince their credulous adherents to be incurious at best and actively opposed to reality at worst.
That’s why I’m glad that Nature chose to endorse a political candidate for the first time in 2020, despite what this paper found: every example I just listed of a politician opposing research is an example of ONE party “politicizing” science–the Republican party. Does that mean the Democrats have been great for science? NO. But if the houses in your neighborhood keep catching on fire, there’s a difference between the firefighters who could be working harder and the gang of arsonists roaming the streets unchecked.
Trump escalated this problem dramatically during his term in office. In fact, in just the FIRST SIX MONTHS, Trump signed “13 congressional resolutions rolling back science-based protections, including safe drinking water standards and safeguards to prevent worker exposure to harmful chemicals.” His administration “misrepresented climate science, removed climate-related content from several government communications, and proposed sharp reductions in climate research…(they) delayed or repealed several science-based pollution standards designed to protect public health, including protections against mercury, air toxics, and coal wastewater, without replacing them with new, scientifically defensible standards.” They altered or deleted scientific language on official government websites, many of which referred to climate change. They made it “more difficult for government scientists to speak publicly about their work, as well as about misconduct within an agency. It has restricted communication with Congress, placed vague gag orders on agency staff, and failed to affirm the ability of scientists to share their expertise publicly.” They appointed anti-science zealots to scientific leadership positions, like a lobbyist who disagreed with the scientific consensus on global warming to head the Environmental Protection Agency.
And all that was long before COVID, when Trump’s complete bungling of the pandemic, and his baseless promotion of quack remedies led to the deaths of more than 333,000 Americans by the end of 2020.
So for the election of 2020, you had THATguy on one side, holding a gas can and a Bic lighter, and on the other side you had Joe Biden, standing there with a hose hooked up to a fire hydrant. Now don’t get it mixed up, Biden is a conservative firefighter – he doesn’t want to waste any water putting out these fires! But he promises to not set any new ones. Yes! Obviously anyone who cares about houses burning down – sorry, I mean science – should endorse Biden over Trump in that situation. And yes, even if Biden ends up doing stupid, anti-science shit like declaring the pandemic to be over just because he wants it to be.
Okay, so what about this study that found, according to its own abstract, “that political endorsement by scientific journals can undermine and polarize public confidence in the endorsing journals and the scientific community”? Well, that’s not really what they found. So.
A political economist at Stanford gave out surveys to about 4,000 people, who first described their political beliefs and how they felt about the journal Nature. Then, half of them read a summary of Nature’s endorsement of Biden over Trump while the other half read Nature’s announcement of a website redesign. Then they were asked which candidate they supported, and questions about their trust in Nature and in science in general.
Most of the respondents were existing Biden supporters, who showed no statistically significant change in attitude after reading the endorsement. About a third of them were Trump supporters, and reading the endorsement didn’t make them like Biden more – it just made them trust Nature and science in general LESS.
I’m not saying this research was useless, but the conclusion should not be surprising in any way. For a start, while the journal Nature may be one of only two scientific journals the average non-scientist has heard of, that doesn’t mean that Nature is targeted at the average non-scientist. They’re not! That endorsement wasn’t necessarily for the layperson but for the scientist – you know, the person who actually has the ability to bypass the paywall.
Second of all, just because a layperson has heard of “Nature,” it doesn’t mean they have a well-established opinion of it. I’ve been seeing this problem a lot lately in research, where a vaguely positive opinion is confused with a considered position. Here’s a hypothesis I’d love to see tested: ask 1,200 Trump supporters how they feel about Nature. Then show them a simplified summary of a paper published in Nature that says climate change is real, caused by humans, and in need of immediate legislation to fix it. My hypothesis is that they won’t change their minds about climate change and they WILL change their minds about how much they trust the journal Nature. BECAUSE SCIENCE HAS ALREADY BEEN POLITICIZED for these people. These people are not inquisitive. They’re not open to changing their mind.
Literally just yesterday, I was speaking with a Trump supporter who confused communism and socialism, so I sent him (with no extraneous commentary) an unbiased overview of the differences between the two political philosophies. He immediately replied “potato potah-to.” I’m sure he didn’t bother to even read it. The truth does not matter to these people, because Tucker Carlson already told them something and they’ve built their entire personalities around it. They are, for the most part, unreachable by facts alone. It’s not impossible to change these people’s minds, but we absolutely will not find a statistically significant result by throwing reality at them and seeing if they immediately change their minds. About ANYTHING that is even tangentially related to politics, which is anything that the talking heads tell them on Newsmax.
So no, I do not expect that Trump supporters were swayed by a scientific journal targeted at scientists pointing out that Trump was demonstrably anti-science while Biden was at least paying lip service to being pro-science. I don’t think that was the point, and I don’t think that the MAGA crowd’s “sudden” distrust of scientists following the editorial is a true or alarming result.
I DO think the same thing I, and many other science communicators, have thought for DECADES: when scientists and their institutions remain silent on matters they deem “political,” they cede the entire debate to the science deniers. You can’t just “not have an opinion” on this. Not speaking up is a CHOICE, just as much as speaking up is a choice. People who understand science and who support the continued funding of science and who want our society to be built upon a rational scientific understanding of the world absolutely MUST choose to speak up in defense of those ideals, or else risk Republicans continuing to spread ignorance and fear by “politicizing” everything that goes against their interests.