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When the editors of some of the world’s leading science journals agree on something, it is generally safe to assume that they are correct. So when prominent journals like Science, Nature, and the New England Journal of Medicine recently published editorials excoriating President Trump’s deadly bungling of the pandemic response and suppression of scientific activity, the editors accurately spotlighted the troubling deficiencies of the current administration.

But in advocating against or endorsing a presidential candidate, these editors made a grave error. In taking this extraordinary step, they made themselves vulnerable to charges of bias, overstepped their roles as science editors, and succumbed to the politicization of science that they and many other scientists find so alarming.

At first glance, these appear to be similar to run-of-the-mill newspaper endorsements. This analogy, however, is not quite right. At a newspaper, there is a wall between the news operation and the editorial office. It exists to prevent biases of the editorial staff from influencing news reporting. No such wall exists for science journals. The editors who write the editorials are the same ones who evaluate manuscripts and make the final decisions on whether to publish them.

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There’s another problem: This political advocacy unnecessarily invites allusions to cronyism, echoing a less savory time when wealthy newspaper owners used their editorial pages to extol the merits of their political chums. Indeed, because of fears surrounding the appearance of undue influence and bias, many newspapers in recent years have abandoned political endorsements.

The risks of science journals advocating for or against candidates are obvious. Editors could be perceived as being politically biased, favoring topics that are of interest to a particular party or leader or conclusions that are sympathetic to him or her. Authors might believe that critical analyses of certain policies, theories, or scientific events would be rejected or muzzled. Even if authors’ perceptions are wrong about editorial leanings, scientists might preemptively edit their manuscripts to fit their assumptions about editors’ views. The result? A chilling of authentic scientific debate.

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Editors’ ultimate allegiance should be to a process — the scientific method — not to a person or a party. Candidates are humans and therefore fallible, and party positions are an unruly collection of aspiration, pragmatism, and expediency that can cut inconveniently across scientific programs. For this reason, it is more sensible for science editors to focus on policies, not politics. Science is, of course, immersed in the world of politics — from its funding to its research priorities — but it need not, indeed cannot, be of this world.

Why did these editors take this unprecedented step? Here’s a conjecture: Editors are people too. They have opinions and they want to express them. And they have experienced four years of helplessness at the hands of a president who, by action and speech, has flouted the values they hold dear. Staying silent would be akin to being complicit.

But the editors could have expressed these values without putting out political yard signs. They could have, for example, invited campaigns to answer detailed questions about science policy and published their answers. They could have published a forum with experts who could critically evaluate candidates’ policy proposals and actions. Or they could have expressed their political views as private individuals representing themselves — or as part of a joint letter from concerned science editors — instead of as journal endorsements.

In other words, they could have honored the scientific integrity and discernment of their readers and the public. With the scientific challenges of Covid-19, these editors are correct that this election is a crucial opportunity to reclaim public health and science leadership in this country. This provides all the more reason to cleave tightly to core scientific principles that will outlast politics.

Genevieve P. Kanter is an assistant professor of medicine and medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine.

  • Seriously, you don’t think it is professional for scientists to call out the most anti-scientific president ever in the history of the US when facing a myriad of serious global health, environmental, social, and economic crises?! This guy is supposed to be not just a national, but global leader. It is highly unethical not to advocate for the earth and all its people. Your attitude will propel us into the next dark ages where rulers use ignorance, fear, and violence instead of scientific knowledge, wisdom and compassion to govern.

  • Does a true scientist ever believe that a hypothesis is actually ever proven without doubt? Climate Change for example, temperatures relatively stable since the mid ’90’s with C02 levels increasing ~60ppm (17% increase). Explain that away? No, science has no place in politic’s, for or against parties or candidates. Maybe the real reason these scientists opined as they did is because their stipends and budgets are being stress tested?

  • Now retired after 45 years in practice, I served as the director of infection control at two separate facilities in my career. The willful disregard of established science on a global pandemic must be condemned from every available platform, bully pulpit, and knowledge based publication. It is not opinion to address intentional misinformation and patently dangerous “alternative” therapies such as injecting bleach. People have died as a direct result of the President’s public statements. Failing to call out conduct that leads directly to avoidable deaths, condemn it fully and forcefully , and advocate against the perpetrator is morally unacceptable.

    I can agree that we must avoid bias as much as possible in all scientific journals. Addressing the failure of this administration and specifically the conduct and public statements of the President is not bias. It is addressing facts.

  • The complaint (and some of the comments) annoy me. The core of the issue to be addressed is a seemingly simple one: People in authority who set policies in willful disregard of science should be firmly denounced for doing so. Period. These days, most such people are Republicans. But circumstances may change, and “most” is not “all.”

    Just this morning, a letter signed by more than 70 environmental reporters went live, highlighting the simply unacceptable refusal of Judge Barrett to accept climate change as real and human-caused. I’m one of them (https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/political-commentary/amy-coney-barrett-climate-journalists-challenge-supreme-court-nomination-1080453/ ).

    Many of the reporters have significant science backgrounds, often from the Earth and Environmental Science Journalism program that I helped start at Columbia University 25 years ago. (Dr. Kim Kastens was the initiator… I do not want to take too much credit.)

    I am reminded of a question I asked at a Harvard seminar when they were still live last year — why had everyone focused on private oil companies when almost all the oil exploration and more than half the production is by national oil companies. Only one investor-owned oil company (ExxonMobil) is a super-bad actor, and it is in partnership with Brazil! The response ignored the question and babbled on about capitalism as being the true evil. Harvard!

    I could have responded that most oil companies are doing the right thing. They are NOT investing in new oil exploration — those investments pay off only in the long-term, and there is no long-term for fossil fuels. The companies are investing in fracking to squeeze oil and gas out of existing fields. Each fracked well lasts 7 to 12 years. They are also investing in alternative energy and in pipelines that will eventually carry wind-generated hydrogen. In that sense, capitalists are actually more responsible than governments, and Russia is the least responsible at all. Russia also spreads propaganda designed to limit production in countries that compete with Russia, to keep prices high for Russia. But it would have fallen on deaf ears among the far left.

    I could also note that scientists tend to find (or refute) only the things they look for. The things they look for are indeed shaped by bias. Sometimes even highly qualified researchers make societally consequential mistakes. Dr. Birx, for instance, has been demanding the impossible since July — COMPLETE daily data from thousands of reporting hospitals. That’s a dumb error that I cover early (on data gathering with far fewer societal consequences) in my experimental design tutorials. The result, as many of us know, is that national COVID data reporting quality has been declining since July!

    Science may self-correct over time. But journalists and journal editors can help correct things on a much faster schedule! Let their voices be heard, and applaud them. There’s no bias in highlighting stupidity.

  • so the problem with an opinion from these scientists or anyone else in the media is that all of this messaging is totally irrelevant in solving this pandemic from Covid virus 19 ; only actual science in a laboratory will solve the crisis with an effective vaccine ; the absurd opinions do a big ZERO in solving the vaccine problem

  • When a politician has consistently and brazenly shown to reject science or scientific evidence, when such politician brings Incalculable harm to humankind by not following science, when such harm that science could have prevented translates into scores of thousands dying; it becomes an imperative for the whole scientific community to make a political stand. Taking an electoral position in this context is not about political partisanship; it is a voice for inquiry and reason. It is naive to distance science from society’s institutions, including elections. Separating science from political choices is not part of the real world. In a situation where science itself and other institutions are being attacked by a politician or a party, election becomes a tool of science and society to push back.

  • Thank you for stating this important position so clearly. The editors of the respective journals cited failed by using their positions in this manner. There is no justification. You have correctly stated how individual beliefs could have been more properly voiced. These journals have been diminished by these actions, as surely as if an opposite viewpoint would have been posited. Your excellent phrasing “they could have honored the scientific integrity and discernment of their readers and the public” illuminates very clearly the line that was crossed, and why these actions were just plain wrong.

  • Good for you. I sincerely appreciate your integrity. There are so many news outlets that no longer give us just the news, and then “be quiet”. I have almost no trust for any of the information coming from those outlets, i.e., television, “news” stations, etc., that claim to give us the news because it is now so biased and opinionated. Let’s not forget the Google search engine that “guides” you to search for what their biases force you to read. And block any research he, Mark Z. and his filters, don’t allow. Or, how about the “non-doctor, -scientist, -researcher, Bill Gates? Check out the countries that he’s been kicked out of because of so many things that he’s forced on their people.
    Thank you for letting me express my thoughts.

  • Your article is politically correct – however,
    to be silent when one believes the people of the country will be dictated to, removing much of their freedom, is really not an option for even the, “ I don’t want to get involved” fence walkers. I recall someone saying of actors voicing their political thoughts, “ what do they know, their only actors!” The common denominators to all opinions are individuals who care. If some have a voice – all should have a voice. None should be muzzled!

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