Who’s to blame for the American right’s distrust of science?

This study unambiguously suggests that scientific journals do the institution of science no favor when they insert themselves so directly in the political debate, especially at a time when trust in the scientific community continues to decline on the right wing.

This is the surprisingly misguided interpretation, in an article published by Politico, of a study published in Nature Human Behaviour on March 20 that found Trump’s supporters’ trust in the journal Nature tanked after it endorsed Joe Biden ahead of the 2020 US presidential elections.

“Trust in the scientific community … on the right wing” is on the decline because the right wing wants to bend the rules and processes of the scientific enterprise to fit a worldview in which racism is desirable, vaccine mandates are anti-freedom, it’s okay to force women to have babies they can’t have, sexual harassment is tolerable, eugenics is justifiable, and democratic mandates can be overturned with violence. It’s a worldview in which a conspiracy abounds in every critique, yet the Politico article suggests that when journals “insert themselves so directly in the political debate”, they’re being unfair to the “institution of science”. It doesn’t compute.

The American’s right’s decision to distrust science is the product of scientists’, and journals’, unwillingness to change what they do and how they do it to fit the right’s cynical requirements as well as to engage with someone who doesn’t come into a conversation being okay with changing their mind as well as often engages in bad-faith tactics designed to subdue, rather than disprove, their interlocutors. See for example the following passage from an excellent April 2013 paper by Massimo Pigliucci and Maarten Boudry (that you should also read in full if you’re inclined):

Believers of the paranormal and supernatural have often tried to turn the tables on skeptics, finding various ways to shift the BoP [burden of proof] back to the latter. In particular, rhetorical moves of the type “you can’t prove it wrong” (Gill 1991; Caso 2002) are unfair requests that fail to appreciate the proper BoP procedure. In some cases, such requests can be straightforwardly fulfilled (e.g., it is very easy to prove that the co-authors of this paper, at this very moment, have far less than $1 M dollar in their pockets), but even then, the skeptic is doing the accuser a favor in taking on a BoP that does not really fall on him (we are under no obligation to empty our pockets after each such gratuitous insinuation). Similarly, if ufologists claim that some crop circle was left by a space ship, the BoP is firmly on their side to come up with extraordinary evidence. If the skeptic chooses to take on their sophistic challenge to “prove that there was no spaceship,” … by way of providing direct or circumstantial evidence that that particular crop circle was in fact a human hoax, they are indulging the believers by taking on a BoP that, rationally speaking, does not pertain to them at all.

(One of my all-time favourite essays is this by Laurie Penny, on just this topic.)

There are two fallacies in Politico‘s interpretation. (It’s really an interpretation suggested by the study’s sole author, Stanford University business PhD student Floyd Zhang – “These results suggest that political endorsement by scientific journals can undermine and polarize public confidence in the endorsing journals and the scientific community” – but I blame Politico more for running with this suggestion in such assertive terms.)

The first is that the scientific community – from the people who conceive of experiments that eventually become written up in papers to the editors of journals that publish them – alone is responsible for increasing or maintaining public trust in science. They are not, but this view straightforwardly arises out of the notion that science is scientists’ business, instead of the “institution” being acknowledged as the public institution that it is (and the democratic institution it ought to be). We might collectively desire higher public trust in science yet we still demand the unqualified freedom to engage with and spread unscientific (or, more specifically, counter-scientific) ideas, to demand solutions to specific problems, to expect scientists to ‘go along’ with the political mandate of the day, and to foist on them the burden of proof to varying degrees in different spheres. This is reminiscent of Ashis Nandy’s conclusion that science has become a reason of state, and is obviously not going to work well.

By assuming part of the mantle to improve the quality and type of trust in science (tempered by deeper questions about what role we’d like science to play in our societies), we also restore scientists’ freedom to exercise their democratic rights.

The second fallacy is that science is inherently non-political and that politicising it from this state of ‘purity’ is wrong. Yet both positions are wrong, as the public anti-Trump stances of Nature, the New England Journal of Medicine, Scientific American, and others demonstrated (and as I have written before here and here, for example). Science is already, and always has been, a politically negotiated enterprise; starting from a position that denies this truth, as the Nature Human Behaviour paper and the Politico article seem to do, is disingenuous and bound to reach conclusions at odds with reality, such as laying the blame for the right’s distrust of science at the feet of an untenable separation of science and politics.

The Politico article concludes thus*:

If Nature’s Biden endorsement had little or no effect on readers except to make some Trump supporters disdain Nature in specific and the scientific establishment in general, why did the publication endorse any candidate?

The publication endorsed any candidate because it could. That’s exactly how it should be.