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Ethicist Protests Politicized Science — Alas, That Horse Left the Barn Long Ago

Photo credit: Sheri Hooley, via Unsplash.

University of Pennsylvania medical ethicist Genevieve P. Kanter worries about science journals and their increasingly political stances. As she notes, Scientific American even went so far as to endorse a candidate for President. Pointing to Science, Nature, and The New England Journal of Medicine as other illustrations, she writes:

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.

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. 

Better Late than Never

Professor Kanter is entirely right, but her concern comes a little late. As we’ve said here before, proponents of intelligent design were the canary in this coal mine of viewpoint suppression. A “chilling of authentic scientific debate” is just what ID advocates have been protesting for years. Now a prominent biology journal has made clear that “creationists” — that familiar sloppy smear typically intended to include non-creationists who recognize scientific evidence of design in life — should be obliged to alert editors to their design sympathies, their ties to “creationist” groups, even if those are wholly independent of their mainstream academic affiliations. That way, when they submit articles for peer-review, it will be easier for editors to know that these scientists are to be dismissed, just because of the company that they keep.

Evolution News today offers a comparison to the way Nazi Germany required Jews under their rule to wear identifying yellow badges. Is that an overheated analogy? I don’t think so. The purpose of the yellow star was to identify disfavored members of society so that they could be isolated from contact with respectable people. In keeping with this was the 1933 German law compelling “non-Aryans,” including scientists, to vacate government jobs.

In the United States and elsewhere, we have witnessed purges aimed at scientists who voiced supports for intelligent design arguments. Or who merely provided a forum for discussion of ID evidence. The 2004 case of biologist Richard Sternberg and his harassment by the Smithsonian Institution, where he worked, was my own point of entry to the design debate. Dr. Sternberg’s offense was to edit a technical scientific journal article by an ID proponent, Stephen Meyer. See the website Free Science for other stories. It is all about the costs of getting on the wrong side of the power structure.

Dread and Self-Censorship 

To say that this “chills” debate about scientific issues is an understatement. It has long created an atmosphere of dread and self-censorship on the part of independent-minded scientists. Politicized journals are a logical extension of this. It’s good to see that some in academia perceive at least part of the problem. Unfortunately, it remains the case that many who rightly protest the “soft totalitarianism” of our time remain blind as ever to the treatment of ID scientists.

See also our colleague Wesley Smith article at the Humanize blog, “Ideology in Science is Destroying Trust.”