Partisan Science is Bad for Science and Society
There are better ways for science organizations to engage policy and politics beyond partisan cheerleading
We all know the type, those who deny science. The dynamic is familiar — A study comes out which shows that certain behaviors of these people are contrary to their own stated interests. But after learning about the relevant research, not only do these people reject the science, but they often just double down on the same pathological behaviors. Deniers!
Of course, here I am referring to the editors of the journals Science and Nature.
An interesting paper just published looked at the effects among members of the general public of Nature’s 2020 endorsement of Joe Biden for president. The study found that not only did the endorsement fail to lead to greater support for Biden, but it resulted in a loss of trust in Nature and contributed to an increase in political polarization — the opposite effects to thaose intended by Nature with its endorsement.
From the paper’s discussion:
[E]lectoral endorsements by Nature and potentially other scientific journals or organizations can undermine public trust in the endorser, particularly among supporters of the out-party candidate. This has negative impacts on trust in the scientific community as a whole and on information acquisition behaviours with respect to critical public health issues. Positive effects among supporters of the endorsed candidate are null or small, and they do not offset the negative effects among the opposite camp. This probably results in a lower overall level of public confidence and more polarization along the party line.
So what did the editors at Nature do upon hearing evidence that their behavior was pathological? Did the say that they would change behavior? Or even pause to consider changing their behavior?
Instead, Nature doubled down on their commitment to partisan endorsements and rejected the evidence that their actions increased polarization. The editor-in-chief of Science, Holden Thorp, went even further, Tweeting derisively about “the public,” who in his view don’t even want science in the first place — so really, who cares if they have no trust in leading scientific journals, right?
Thorp must have received some negative reactions to that misjudged comment, as a few days later he backtracked a bit and committed Science to not making partisan endorsements.
The roles of science in policy and politics is well plowed ground here at The Honest Broker (and in the book for which this site is named). There are many important and constructive ways for scientists and science institutions to engage policy and politics beyond partisan cheerleading. You find an introduction to The Honest Broker framework here.
Make no mistake, both partisanship and political advocacy by scientists are essential to a healthy democracy. But that fact does not mean that scientific institutions, like academic journals or universities, should look to partisan politics as a leading option for public engagement. In fact, as the study cited above indicates, partisan cheerleading can actually make things worse and compromise democratic practices.
Before jumping into the fray, I encourage my students and others to have a good understanding of how their chosen mode of political engagement might make things better or make things worse. If you don’t know the difference, or are just assuming or guessing, then you probably should slow down a bit and take some time to better understand the complexities of science in policy and politics.
Today, Matt Burgess, a colleague and collaborator at the University of Colorado Boulder, and I have an article out at The Heterodox Academy which discusses these issues — Partisan Science is Bad for Science and Society.
Here is how it starts:
Over the past ten years, scientific institutions—including universities, public funding agencies, and major journals—have become much more actively involved in political advocacy, usually on behalf of left-leaning candidates or causes. The timing roughly corresponds with the leftward shift in elite discourse in the mid-2010s, sometimes called the ‘Great Awokening’ (see the figure below for some examples, and here and here for more).
For instance, it has become common for Science and Nature to publish editorials taking political positions on contested issues (e.g., here and here); the Nature family has introduced editorial guidelines that explicitly open the door to giving advocacy groups veto power over research findings; U.S. universities increasingly require diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) statements or criteria for faculty hiring, grant proposals, promotion and merit reviews, which are often evaluated as progressive political litmus tests; the number of politically motivated de-platforming or firing incidents (most of which come from the left) has increased (and these are sometimes supported by administrators, as we saw recently at Stanford); the fractions of professors who are afraid to speak their minds and who have been threatened or punished for their speech is large and skews moderate and conservative; the fraction of professors who are conservative is small and decreasing. These examples represent the tip of a larger iceberg.
Those pushing for science institutions to become more explicitly partisan usually make some version of the following two arguments: 1) Scientists have a trusted and respected position in society. We should capitalize on that authority to advance our shared (progressive) political views and preferred policies (e.g., here and here). 2) Scientists are not perfectly objective and science has always been influenced by politics. Therefore, we should be intentional about politicizing science in ways that advance important political positions and policies (e.g., here and here). Both arguments are flawed.
Please head over there for the full text and then come back here to discuss.
The attraction of partisan politics is obvious, especially in an era of extreme partisanship magnified by social media and cable news. We experts, especially those of us whose work is supported by the public, should always remember that we work for those who provide us the resources and social license to do our work. That includes both people who may be our political soul mates and fellow travelers, as well as those whose politics we may find appalling or even worse.
There are plenty of places where partisan cheerleading makes good sense. Scientific journals, university administrations and research laboratories are probably not among those places — if securing sustained and broad-based public trust is desired by the scientific community.
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