Recently, the scientific journal Nature and the New England Journal of Medicine announced that they are endorsing Joe Biden for President. Last month, Scientific American did the same. These endorsements are notable since scientific journals do not typically endorse candidates for office. As someone who opposes Donald Trump’s re-election, it is tempting to welcome support from every corner. In this case, however, I wish Joe Biden would kindly but firmly denounce their endorsements – not so much for his sake, but for the sake of academia.
There are a number of strong reasons as to why journals should not endorse:
First of all, science is already being politicized. Objective facts are increasingly treated as subordinate to the feelings and the emotions of political activists and representatives. Climate change may be the most obvious example, but it’s not the only one. Most recently, the “feeling” that masks cannot possibly protect against tiny viruses like COVID-19 has been considered by many politicians as just as or more valid than the scientific fact that they do. Even politicians who probably do know better are afraid of confronting their voters and grassroots supporters with inconvenient scientific facts.
This is only going to be harder if it becomes commonplace for journals to endorse political candidates. Already today there are many Republicans who will discard any stories published by the New York Times, The Washington Post, or other liberal-leaning papers. No matter how well-researched, no matter the amount of evidence, any story published by them can be dismissed by saying “Well, they’re liberal, of course, they would say that”. What happens if scientific journals likewise can be dismissed in the same way?
You may think that the same people who dismiss anything that comes from NYT are already dismissing scientific journals. First of all, that’s not quite true – most voters are more skeptical of news outlets that are seen as promoting the other side, and even relatively moderate right-leaning voters may thus be less prone to trust scientific journals if they come out in favor of the Democrats.
Secondly, fueling the fires of conspiracy theorists who believe science to be a giant liberal plot against Common SenseTM is not going to help heal the country. Just because some of your opponents already believe something about you that isn’t true, that does not mean you should give them further reason to believe it. There is a large portion of American voters who, post-election, are going to have to be rehabilitated from the conspiratorial mindset if the US is ever to heal. Political involvement by scientific journals and other authorities who are meant to be objective is not going to make that easier.
Now, if it were the case that the outcome of the election hung in the balance on the votes of professors and grad students, one might have been able to overlook all of this. This is not the case: No scientific publication will ever affect the outcome of the election in any meaningful way. Those who read scientific journals are overwhelmingly Democrat voters. Conservatives in academia are used to being in opposition, and likely won’t care if a journal bashes their political beliefs. They were under no illusion that those beliefs were popular among their colleagues, peer reviewers or editors anyway. To be quite honest, I doubt these endorsements have won Biden more than a dozen additional votes each.
I understand that I may come off as an alarmist. How could three journals endorsing a candidate somehow drastically change the public’s view and trust in science? The problem is that, while right now it’s only three journals, one thing that has become clear during the past few years it is that politicization can grow like a cancer: It wasn’t that long ago that most influencers were apolitical, interested only in promoting make-up or get people to watch their zany hijinks. It also wasn’t that long ago that Colin Kaepernick was banished from the NFL for taking a knee since everyone agreed that professional sports ought to be free from political showmanship. Now if you’re an influencer and you don’t actively support whatever progressive slacktivist fad (i.e. changing your profile picture to a black square) is currently doing the rounds on social media, you run the risk of being branded as a bigot. And of course, just about every professional team – in and outside of football – is going to great lengths to show their commitment to racial justice and policing reforms.
To be clear, this is not about whether those causes are worthy or not. This is about politics invading spaces that were previously largely non-political, and about how once it happens, it can happen really fast. Now that these three prominent scientific journals have endorsed Biden, it is likely that journalists looking for stories being to call up the editors of other journals and asking them whom they support. Not long after that you will see headlines like “[Prestigious journal] refuses to condemn Trump” and “[Name of Editor] silent about racial inequality”.
Pretty soon, universities may face pressure to stop subscribing to journals who refuse to declare their support for progressive causes and candidates, or even to stop their employees from citing these journals in their own research. The expectation of political neutrality changes, and suddenly journals who dare to stay politically neutral and stick to evaluating and disseminating scientific research will run the risk of being canceled. Before you dismiss this as farfetched, keep in mind that student organizations and professors have already been canceled and run out of campus for opposing progressive ideas. To demand political conformity from journals would in many ways actually be a logical next step.
It is understandable that academic researchers and editorial staff at scientific journals are horrified by the prospect of Donald Trump winning a second term. As individuals, these people should of course feel free to participate in the political process in all of the same ways as other Americans, but in a professional capacity they need to act with restraint. The future of science may very well depend on it.