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Why Won't the Editors of Nature Follow the Data and Listen to the Science?
A study published in Nature finds Nature's 2020 endorsement of Joe Biden was counterproductive. Nature's editors don't care.
“When candidates threaten a retreat from reason, science must speak out,” says Nature, the prestigious scientific journal, in an editorial defending its choice to run another editorial, in 2020, endorsing Joe Biden for president.
Nature has also (to its credit) published a scientific study that makes a strong case that its endorsement editorial was counterproductive.
In an experiment where voters were shown information about Nature’s endorsement of Biden, researchers found the endorsement had no significant effect on views about whether Biden would do a better job than Trump of handling issues related to science. But there was a significant effect on views on Nature’s trustworthiness as a source of information: Trump supporters became significantly less inclined to believe that Nature was well informed and unbiased, while Biden supporters became only modestly more inclined to believe Nature was well informed, and no more likely to believe it was unbiased.
In other words, the editorial contributed to the political polarization of science, and further undermined Republicans’ inclination to trust a source of scientific information, while apparently doing nothing to convince people to vote for Biden. Not great!
So why does Nature still believe that “science” must speak out?1 Their new editorial never explains why. It rehashes arguments about why Trump (and other right-wing leaders like Jair Bolsonaro and Viktor Orban) are bad. But it does not even try to marshal an argument for why actions like running their pro-Biden editorial constitute a useful response to that badness:
The study shows the potential costs of making an endorsement. But inaction has costs, too. Considering the record of Trump’s four years in office, this journal judged that silence was not an option…
At a time when the world needed to unite to deal with these and other global threats, he took an axe to international relationships, pulling the United States out of the 2015 Paris climate agreement and the United Nations science agency, UNESCO. He moved to defund the World Health Organization, and he walked away from a deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) that the United States had carefully negotiated with Europe, China and Russia to prevent Iran’s government from enriching weapons-grade uranium. It is hard not to think of a worst-case scenario for public health, climate change or nuclear security had Trump remained in office today…
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.
For people who prattle on about the importance of listening to the science, the editors of Nature sure haven’t done that here — they have looked at scientific evidence that the thing they did had effects counter to their own stated objectives, and they have cast that evidence aside, responding with a conclusory argument that “silence is not an option.”
Of course, there is the real reason the editors of Nature felt they had to run the Biden endorsement editorial: It made them feel good.
In explaining what he thinks “woke” means, I think Freddie is right to focus on the fact that “woke” politics is inherently performative — more about holding the right views than about doing anything to turn those views into policy. He wrote:
“Wokeness” centers “the personal is political” at the heart of all politics and treats political action as inherently a matter of personal moral hygiene — woke isn’t something you do, it’s something you are. Correspondingly all of politics can be decomposed down to the right thoughts and right utterances of enlightened people. Persuasion and compromise are contrary to this vision of moral hygiene and thus are deprecated. Correct thoughts are enforced through a system of mutual surveillance, one which takes advantage of the affordances of internet technology to surveil and then punish. Since politics is not a matter of arriving at the least-bad alternative through an adversarial process but rather a matter of understanding and inhabiting an elevated moral station, there are no crises of conscience or necessary evils.
Nature’s idea that they had an obligation to speak out against Trump in the forum they control — that “silence is not an option” — flows directly from this idea that the purpose of politics is to declare good moral ideas. By this measure, Nature’s editorial endorsing Joe Biden was a success; it demonstrated that Nature’s editors have the right moral commitments and that they hate Donald Trump for the right reasons. That the editorial persuaded readers of the wrong thing — to listen less to the scientists at Nature — is immaterial, because woke politics is not about convincing people and influencing their behavior; it’s about separating the morally upright from the deplorable.2
You can see this phenomenon repeated over and over in the institutional left, which is fully populated by overeducated people steeped in the idea that progressive politics is about committees and task forces and statements that reflect the right sets of moral values. Just look at the “climate justice” movement, which seems way more interested in moral posturing than in getting clean energy infrastructure built. Giving Joe Biden an “F-” for his approach to climate doesn’t make a lot of sense as analysis or as a way to reduce carbon emissions, but it certainly does work as a way to declare your own moral superiority.
But the first thing I thought of when I read Freddie’s post was actually a Streetsblog op-ed from last year, titled “Europe’s Bike and Transit Systems Are a Marvel, But Only For Some.” The author, a transportation-focused program officer at a progressive non-profit, traveled to London and Amsterdam to learn about the European approach to transit and bike infrastructure. And her surprising takeaway was that Europe has much to learn about transit from the US:
On the Barr Climate team, we have an explicit value of centering racial equity in our work. So naturally, thinking about who we plan for — and who continues to be left out — was top of mind for me and our study group.
But, we found that consistently asking ‘for whom’ was absent from much of the context and information we were given. We pressed our hosts with questions about who they are prioritizing in their planning and why, and the answer was often, “well, everyone.”
This is problematic, as it continues to leave people out who have already been excluded many times over…
Although Europe is making far more headway reducing greenhouse gas emissions than the United States, we can’t follow their lead in how they got there. From what I observed, people of color, immigrants, and low-income people are not prioritized in decision making in these two cities…
Throughout the study tour, we heard phrases like “I don’t see color”, and “we are taking care of those people so their voices aren’t needed at the table”. These “color-blind” approaches continue to leave people out and are not going to address the stark racial inequities in our society.
When measuring “success” in transit reliability, separated bike lane miles, or air quality, the U.S. is far behind our European counterparts. I’ll posit that some in the U.S. are inching towards doing better — by centering people most impacted in our planning.
This is true: you cannot look at Europe’s vastly less car-centric model of urban mobility and conclude that we are outperforming them based on metrics like ridership, frequency, or reliability. But if you measure by who spends the most on equity studies financed by entities like the Barr Foundation, then the US is a real leader.
This is the essence of DeBoer’s conception of “woke” politics: The centering of “racial equity” and the rejection of phrases like “I don’t see color” is the deliverable. Whether you actually get people out of their cars is secondary. I wrote earlier this week about the abject failure of LA Metro to provide a safe and appealing subway system to the diverse population that could be their ridership base. But perhaps I am excessively focused on numerical metrics like ridership and crime.3
Of course, the problem with this approach is that substantive deliverables do matter. People expect the government to provide infrastructure that helps them get to work, to fight pollution, to stop crime. These are supposed to be central efforts not just of progressive politics, but also of centrist or conservative politics. These efforts sometimes involve messy compromises with people who don’t agree with you on everything, and they sometimes involve focusing on boring technical and administrative matters rather than lofty moral concepts. These efforts also require trying to win elections — which includes making political statements because you believe they will have good effects, rather than because they signal your own moral purity.
I would note there’s at least one institution dominated by progressives that has realized all this statement-making has gone a bit too far. That’s Stanford Law School. Dean Jenny Martinez, wrote a long-but-worthwhile letter outlining the law school’s next steps after Judge Kyle Duncan, an invited speaker, was allowed to be shouted down in violation of the school’s own policies on free speech.
She explained why she apologized to Judge Duncan, reaffirmed the school’s commitment to free speech, and explained what they’ll do in the future to ensure it’s actually upheld. She also said this:
I want to set expectations clearly going forward: our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion is not going to take the form of having the school administration announce institutional positions on a wide range of current social and political issues, make frequent institutional statements about current news events, or exclude or condemn speakers who hold views on social and political issues with whom some or even many in our community disagree. I believe that focus on these types of actions as the hallmark of an “inclusive” environment can lead to creating and enforcing an institutional orthodoxy that is not only at odds with our core commitment to academic freedom, but also that would create an echo chamber that ill prepares students to go out into and act as effective advocates in a society that disagrees about many important issues.
Dean Martinez understands something important: An institution with a specific mission, that is charged to advance certain areas of knowledge for the benefit of an ideologically diverse public, should not necessarily take a stance on every social issue of the day — even very important issues, and even on issues where a majority of the institution’s stakeholders are on the same side. That is: in the face of social problems, silence not only is an option, it is often the correct institutional option. That doesn’t mean nobody within the institution should speak — law professors, like scientists, are participants in a democracy like anyone else and are free to make their opinions heard — but it means they should carefully consider whether roping in the institution itself advances the ends for which the institution exists.
What Nature and similar outlets are doing with their open embrace of progressive politics — with their insistence that The Science compels them to not just hold but declare certain political commitments — is not making progressive ideas more likely to be implemented. But it is making the broad public — which does not necessarily share the left-wing ideological views that dominate within academic institutions — less trusting of science. It’s undermining the purpose for which Nature exists; it’s a mistake.
I actually thought one of the most telling things about Nature’s error was the defense it received from Holden Thorp, editor-in-chief of Science, who praised their recent editorial and said:
Following the admonition to stick to science is conceding the idea that scientists can be sidelined in policy decisions. ‘Stick to science’ infantilizes scientists and tells us to sit at the kids table and let the adults decide. We must fight back.
And yet, after a couple of days, he added to his remarks, noting that Science does not endorse political candidates and does not intend to do so in the future. It seems even he understands Nature was wrong in its judgment about when “science must speak out.”
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Of course “science” cannot speak at all. Scientists can say whatever they want. But while scientists are authorities on the domains of science where they have expertise, they are not authorities on public policy, since even policy decisions that require scientific expertise as an input also involve questions of values and priorities, and on those questions, scientists have no particular authority — their opinions about values or about the purpose of government carry no more weight than yours or mine.
Hence why you hear “it’s not my job to educate you,” the most anti-political stance I’ve ever seen taken by purported members of a political movement.
I should note, in fairness, that Metro has a “JEDI book club” and in 2021 got 140 staff members to read Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race, which I assume will help them with the project of centering racial equity. “JEDI” stands for “justice, equity, diversity and inclusion.” Analysts forecast that this acronym will reach 7 letters in length by the year 2030.