Culture & Ethics Icon Culture & Ethics

How Political Ideology Has Undermined Scientific Credibility

Wesley J. Smith
Photo: March for Science, by Vlad Tchompalov via Unsplash.

The scientific establishment moans that it is no longer trusted. True. But there is good cause. The leadership of the hard-science sector has grown increasingly ideological — undermining science’s overall credibility.

Saving the Supreme Court

Here are two recent examples. Earlier this month, Science, one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world, published an editorial that could have appeared in the Nation or Washington Post on . . . how to fix the United States Supreme Court that has grown too conservative. From “Save the Supreme Court and Democracy,” by Maya Sen — a Harvard social scientist, meaning not a “scientist” at all:

The US Supreme Court has been busy. It recently overturned a nearly 50-year-old precedent protecting abortion rights, upheld the right to carry guns outside the home, and hamstrung the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate emissions — all while signaling an aversion to contemporary empirical evidence and instead favoring “history and tradition.” Although the majority of Americans disagree with many of these decisions, the court has only just begun to reshape the country. When it resumes in October, the court will be poised to outlaw affirmative action, undercut federal regulations regarding clean water, and possibly allow state legislatures to restrict voting rights without oversight by state courts.

With the exception of environmental regulation, none of that has anything to do with actual science. Science isn’t about politics, opinion polls, or subjective opinions. It is supposed to be about adducing facts about the natural world and applying them. Whether to permit, outlaw, or regulate abortion isn’t a question that science can answer. That issue belongs to the realms of morality, ethics, and politics. Ditto gun policy.

The answer to this non-scientific problem? The usual political suggestions:

Reforming the court to prevent extreme ideological movements may be difficult, but not impossible. For example, 18-year term limits for justices would regularize appointments — eliminating gamesmanship around vacancies and reducing incentives for justices to strategically time retirements. This would help prevent extreme partisan imbalance and thus keep the court closer to the ideological mainstream. Term limits enjoy wide bipartisan support and would put the US in line with other democratic peer nations, all of which have term or age limits for their high courts. Additional promising proposals by scholars to help reduce ideological imbalance include reconfiguring how the US selects justices and expanding the size of the court. Others — such as stripping the court’s jurisdiction—would address the argument that the court wields too much power.

Here’s the thing: This blatantly political piece isn’t going to make a whit of difference as to what political or policy decisions are made about the Supreme Court. But by publishing it, the editors badly undermined respect for Science as a journal — and corroded the credibility of science as a crucial human endeavor — just as it did when the journal published an article endorsing “nature rights.”

Science and Non-Science

Meanwhile, over at Nature Human Behaviour — newly adopted guidelines may preclude the publication of a scientific paper based on non-scientific considerations. From “Science Must Respect the Dignity and Rights of all Humans”:

We require that all content submitted for publication be respectful of the dignity and rights of individuals and human groups. Researchers are asked to carefully consider the potential implications (including inadvertent consequences) of research on human groups defined by attributes of race, ethnicity, national or social origin, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, political or other beliefs, age, disease, (dis)ability or other status, to be reflective of their authorial perspective if not part of the group under study, and contextualise their findings to minimize as much as possible potential misuse or risks of harm to the studied groups in the public sphere.

Even if a study has significant scientific merit, it may not be published because of the real or perceived political or social implications of the findings. Why would I think such a thing? For example:

Sexist, misogynistic and/or anti-LGBTQ+ content is ethically objectionable. Regardless of content type (research, review or opinion) and, for research, regardless of whether a research project was reviewed and approved by appropriate ethics specialists, editors may raise with the authors concerns regarding potentially sexist, misogynistic, and/or anti-LGBTQ+ assumptions, implications or speech in their submission; engage external ethics experts to provide input on such issues as part of the peer review process; or request modifications to (or correct or otherwise amend post-publication), and in severe cases refuse publication of (or retract post-publication) sexist, misogynistic, and/or anti-LGBTQ+ content

See What I Mean?

Instructions are also given about the language to be used and the assumptions to be made when writing about different groups. It’s a long piece, so I will only include this passage that clearly shows the “woke” approach expected of authors:

Gender identity — an individual’s conception of self as being a man, woman, masculine, feminine, nonbinary, ambivalent, etc., based in part on physical, psychological and social factors. It is the internal experience of a gender role. There is a broad range of gender identities including, but not limited to, transgender, gender-queer, gender-fluid, non-binary, gender-variant, genderless, agender, nongender, bi-gender, trans man, trans woman, trans masculine, trans feminine and cisgender

Science goes badly off the track when it succumbs to ideological pressures — as it did with the eugenics movement. Elevating ideology over fact-finding threatens to elevate subjective considerations over the objective focus that epitomizes the scientific method, threatening the overall credibility of the science sector and potentially impeding the work of scientists pursuing heterodox hypotheses that may offend current cultural sensibilities. If this continues, we will all be the losers.

Cross-posted at The Corner.