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Opinion: Should Scientific Journals Take a Political Stand?

Opinion: Should Scientific Journals Take a Political Stand?

Photo: Laila Gebhard/Unsplash

  • On August 25, Science’s ‘News and Analysis’ section published a rebuttal of a monologue that had appeared on the Fox News show ‘Tucker Carlson Tonight’.
  • Carlson called Anthony Fauci a fraud who had committed serious crimes. Science in turn fact-checked Carlson’s claims and found none of them to be true.
  • Science writer and lecturer Stuart Ritchie deliberated on his blog as to whether scientific journals should publish political rebuttals of this sort or if they should stay in their lanes.
  • In this article, Prof. Gautam I. Menon considers the same questions – should they or shouldn’t they? – from an Indian perspective.

The byline to this article is accompanied by the disclaimer: The views expressed here are his and don’t represent his institutions.

That this needs to be said might seem surprising. Individuals have views. But what might an institutional view even mean?

Some have fun with the disclaimer text. Robert Park, who used to write a regular monthly ‘What’s New’ column for the American Physical Society, would end by saying, “Opinions are the author’s and are not necessarily shared by the university, but they should be.”

Informed scientific opinion is open to the idea that plants should be genetically modified if, by doing so, one can create more nutritious foods as well as drought- or pest-resistant crops. The people, to the extent that they think of these questions at all, are more sceptical. Elected politicians can hardly be insensitive to what their constituents think.

A majority of scientists might consider a crewed Moon mission to be a waste of resources, unlikely to yield any substantially new knowledge. But an element of national pride in such an accomplishment, encouraged by politicians of all stripes, enters here, outweighing what should be a purely scientific assessment.

Where should scientific journals intervene in those uneasy areas where science and politics intersect? And to what extent should journals attempt to educate the public on these issues, knowing that their views might not be popular, even if they are right?

The editorial lines taken by high-profile international scientific journals such as Science, Nature or the Proceedings of the Royal Society are rarely political. They may point to the need for additional funding for science or even comment on the scientific scandal du jour, but for them to make explicitly political points is rare.

However, there are exceptions. In 2008, Nature endorsed a US presidential candidate for the first time in its more than 150-year history, Barack Obama.)

Medical journals, such as JAMA or The Lancet, have been somewhat bolder in their editorial speech. But this is also because, as the German pathologist and politician Rudolf Virchow insightfully said, “Medicine is social science and politics nothing but medicine on a grand scale.”

This reticence is partly because scientific journals are often owned by large multinational corporations. Nature was taken over by Springer in 2010, extending the reach of an already hugely profitable corporation. The journal Science, however, is owned by a scientific non-profit society.

On August 25 of this year, Science’s ‘News and Analysis’ section published a rebuttal of a monologue that had appeared some days previously on the Fox News show ‘Tucker Carlson Tonight’. In it, Carlson targeted Anthony Fauci, calling him a dangerous fraud who had committed serious crimes. This was three days after Fauci’s announcement that he would be retiring from his position as chief medical adviser to the US president at the end of the year.

What Carlson says matters because of the size of his audience on American television. In July 2020, his show broke the record for the highest-rated program in US cable news history. He speaks regularly to an audience of about 4.5 million viewers, noticeably more than his competitors from CNN and MSNBC.

Science’s rebuttal noted that virtually everything “Tucker Carlson said … was misleading or false”.

Regarding Fauci, Carlson said:

“Then he lied about masks publicly. ‘You should wear one as you’re riding a bike, you’re getting too much life enhancing oxygen. What you really need is more carbon dioxide. Be more like a tree.’ That’s what he was saying in public, but in private, he wrote that ‘The typical mask you buy at a drug store is not really effective at keeping out a virus.’”

Science rebutted thus:

“Fauci never publicly uttered these supposed quotes. The private remark is from an email he sent in February 2020. Evidence about the effectiveness of masks at the start of the pandemic was limited. As Fauci has explained, he changed his mind about promoting the use of masks after it became clear there wasn’t a mask shortage, asymptomatic COVID-19 was common and was leading to many infections, and the virus could spread through aerosols.”

Carlson also claimed “researchers at Johns Hopkins [University] admitted that lockdowns didn’t actually work. They did ruin people’s lives for no reason whatsoever.”

Science retorted that “This ‘working paper’, written by economists—not epidemiologists—was heavily criticised. Many other studies have concluded that lockdowns did, in fact, slow down the spread of the virus, prevent severe disease and deaths, and help reduce the strain on hospital systems.”

In an interesting blog post, science writer and lecturer Stuart Ritchie set out his own thoughts on the matter thus:

“… so why did I have misgivings about the Science piece? It’s the kind of thing you see all the time on dedicated political fact-checking sites – but I’d never before seen it in a scientific journal. I’m very much in favour of debunking misleading and false arguments. But is it a good thing that scientific journals are now publishing direct, detailed attacks on right-wing shock jocks?”

Ritchie presents his arguments, both for and against, in the style of a conversation between two ‘alternative selves’, called Stuart Alpha, who is against politics entering journals, and Stuart Prime, who is more sympathetic to scientific journals publishing similar interventions.

Stuart Alpha illustrated his point by saying: “The risk is that, if “science” becomes something that’s seen as strongly associated with liberal politics and strongly opposed to conservative politicians  … it’s going to be that much harder to convince conservatives to take it seriously in future.”

Stuart Prime countered:

“There’s an enormous attack on science, and on scientists like Fauci, by massively popular media figures on the right in the US (and to a lesser extent the UK). A lot of people—3 or 4 million every night—watch Tucker Carlson’s show. It’s maddening to any thinking person that he’s spreading such blatant untruths, night after night, to an audience of that size. You’re really advocating that scientific journals just sit back and don’t publish anything that stands up to this relentless assault? And by the way, that assault is (at least part of) the reason people lose trust in science in the first place.”

In India, several publications of the Indian Academy of Science, among them the flagship Current Science journal established by C.V. Raman and others in 1932, are published by the multinational publishing company Springer. They are, however, editorially independent.

Despite this independence, Indian science journals have been rigorously silent on questions intersecting politics. This silence is perhaps excessive. Robust discussions concerning political interference in science, political attacks on scientists, or even distortions in funding and governance with origins in politics, are absent from their editorials.

Certainly their objectivity – especially as seen from outside the scientific community – would be lost if Indian journals were to take explicit political sides. But equally, it would be strange if they continued to remain detached, as they seem to be now, from important social and political issues of our time, especially in those where a scientific perspective contributes essentially.

One  area where science journals in India might sensibly intervene concerns the idea that products derived from cows are in any way special. This stands counter to scientific understanding of any sort.

Ideally, such ideas should have stayed confined to cultural practice, with no need for any scientific commentary either for or against. A mutual understanding of the need to separate public from private spaces would have sufficed.

Not taking a stand becomes harder to justify when such an idea moves beyond being a relatively harmless cultural signifier and into a political space, in the service of a specific political symbolism, and with repercussions for our society.

Other issues at the intersection of science and politics include a current and ongoing overemphasis on ancient Indian texts as the true source of all knowledge, scientific and otherwise. Tension at the interface of superstition and rationality is inevitable. However, the assassinations of the rationalists Narendra Dabholkar and Govind Pansare show that even perfectly reasonable views held by scientists can elicit a murderous response.

The ordinary Indian citizen has no real way of knowing what the science says on any particular issue. The venues where they might listen to arguments for or against an issue involving science are few and not often accessible.

Given this unfilled space, it may be reasonable to ask that on those occasions where science is (mis)used in the service of explicitly political ends, scientific venues should consider it appropriate to call this out. Scientific journals’ editorials usually only reach a limited and technical audience. However, when such interventions are  reproduced in other, more public-facing, media, they will be taken seriously, especially if believed to be unbiased.

So, when commenting on political matters, the editors of scientific journals should reserve their editorial flex only for issues that they are in a better position than anyone else to weigh in on. They should stand on the side of evidence, scientific method and rigorous analysis – all values core to scientific practice. All these are, of course, also independent of any personal political views.

Apart from these, however, they should stay away from the distractions of broader discourse. Natural scientists as a group have nothing special to contribute to debates on economics, unemployment, foreign affairs, social inequality or on political activity as a whole.

There is nothing to gain and indeed there is much to lose if scientific journals were to comment on questions outside their  expertise. To be taken seriously in areas where their views should naturally count, they should be measured in the  interventions they make as well as scholarly and precise in what they say and how they say it.

They should also resist the impulse to sway to any current, past or future political wind, if they are to be viewed as trustworthy voices.

Gautam I. Menon is a professor at Ashoka University, Sonepat, and at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai. The views expressed here are his and do not represent his institutions.

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