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Partisan Science is Bad for Science and Society

Over the past ten years, scientific institutions—including universities, public funding agencies, and major journals—have become much more actively involved in political advocacy, usually on behalf of left-leaning candidates or causes. The timing roughly corresponds with the leftward shift in elite discourse in the mid-2010s, sometimes called the ‘Great Awokening’ (see the figure below for some examples, and here and here for more).

For instance, it has become common for Science and Nature to publish editorials taking political positions on contested issues (e.g., here and here); the Nature family has introduced editorial guidelines that explicitly open the door to giving advocacy groups veto power over research findings; U.S. universities increasingly require diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) statements or criteria for faculty hiring, grant proposals, promotion and merit reviews, which are often evaluated as progressive political litmus tests; the number of politically motivated de-platforming or firing incidents (most of which come from the left) has increased (and these are sometimes supported by administrators, as we saw recently at Stanford); the fractions of professors who are afraid to speak their minds and who have been threatened or punished for their speech is large and skews moderate and conservative; the fraction of professors who are conservative is small and decreasing. These examples represent the tip of a larger iceberg.

Those pushing for science institutions to become more explicitly partisan usually make some version of the following two arguments: 1) Scientists have a trusted and respected position in society. We should capitalize on that authority to advance our shared (progressive) political views and preferred policies (e.g., here and here). 2) Scientists are not perfectly objective and science has always been influenced by politics. Therefore, we should be intentional about politicizing science in ways that advance important political positions and policies (e.g., here and here). Both arguments are flawed.

The first argument naively takes scientists’ trusted position in society for granted, rather than recognizing that trust is something we hold conditionally and can lose. We hold it conditionally on providing the services of making discoveries about the world, turning knowledge and know-how into useful technologies and other applications, educating the next generation of students and scholars, and participating in the public square as advocates, arbiters or honest brokers. We can place our trusted position in society at risk when we subordinate these roles to engage in partisan politics or stealth advocacy by advancing our interests while pretending to be above the fray as scientists.

Scientists are already losing public trust along partisan lines (see the graph below). A recent study in Nature Human Behaviour underscores this point—its author found that U.S. voters who read Nature’s endorsement of Joe Biden in 2020 did not change their opinion of him, but were less likely to trust scientists and Nature, and less likely to pay attention to Nature’s findings on COVID-19. (A subsequent Nature editorial defended the endorsement decision despite its consequences.)

Panel (a) compares trends in campus disinvitations from the left, scholars under fire (i.e. targeted for discipline) from the left, and the frequency of ‘equity’ in funded in National Science Foundation (NSF) grant abstracts (top), to trends in trust in universities and the scientific community (bottom). Panel (b) shows the percentage of U.S. professors’ political donations going to Republicans, and the share of right-leaning U.S. academics perceiving a hostile climate and having been disciplined or threatened with discipline for their beliefs, all from reported in 2020.[/caption]

To put it bluntly: if scientific institutions continue to openly and preferentially support the progressive wing of the Democratic party’s preferred positions and causes, then we shouldn’t be surprised if public support for the scientific community eventually approximates its support for the progressive wing of the Democratic party—a level of support often insufficient to win elections in progressive strongholds like New York City, Minneapolis, Chicago, San Francisco, and Seattle. If scientific institutions come to be viewed as akin to campaigning NGOs, then we should not be surprised to see more calls to defund universities, abolish left-activist disciplines, weaken or eliminate tenure, and build new competitor universities. That’s not a desirable future for most of us in the academy.

Flaws in the argument that science has always been political, so we should embrace an ideological posture, are subtler, but also more pernicious. It’s true that science and politics are almost always intermixed. But we have yet to find a better way to access reliable knowledge than the scientific method, subject to open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and rigorous exchange of competing ideas. We bet our lives on the scientific method every day when we drive across a bridge, get on an airplane, or go to the doctor. We experts have options in how we engage with policy and politics, but subsuming scientific integrity to partisan politicization will only make it harder to bring evidence to light that helps society solve important problems, including–perhaps especially–those problems that are progressive priorities.

For example, several top public health experts warned in October 2020 that the potential costs of long-term lockdowns, including to education, might outweigh the benefits, compared to a more targeted approach protecting the most vulnerable. Some of these experts were harassed by their colleagues and censored by tech companies at the urging of top public-health officials. Their universities did little to defend their academic freedom. Subsequent research suggests that long-term school closures had devastating effects on learning, especially among disadvantaged students, and jurisdictions such as Sweden and Florida that followed the advice of reopening schools earlier did not suffer greater overall pandemic mortality but had much better educational outcomes.

After the horrific murder of George Floyd in May 2020 in Minneapolis, the scientific community rallied around the causes of ending systemic racism and speaking out against police brutality targeting Black Americans. Medical researchers urged participation in mass protests despite the pandemic. A major journal retracted a study showing nuances in patterns of racial bias in policing, over concerns about how the study was being reported on in the public discourse. An editor of a major economics journal was nearly removed for publicly criticizing the protests. Yet, as the ‘defund the police’ movement gained steam, there was not a concerted effort by the scientific community to present and discuss the already-clear evidence suggesting that a reduction in police forces and police budgets posed significant public safety risks, especially to disadvantaged communities (and went against the wishes of the overwhelming majority of Black Americans). The demonization, attrition, and in some places defunding of police is now widely seen as one of the most important causes of the ongoing crime surge in the U.S., which has caused roughly 6,000 additional murders per year (compared to 2019 levels), not to mention flight of businesses, capital, and people, again disproportionately affecting disadvantaged communities.

In 2015, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff warned that college campuses were increasingly promoting–in the name of inclusion–habits of mind that were conducive to anxiety and depression. In a 2018 book expanding on their argument, they summarized these ideas as three “Great Untruths”: “what doesn’t kill you makes you weaker” (catastrophizing); “always trust your feelings” (emotional reasoning); “life is a battle between good and evil people” (dichotomous thinking). Musa al-Gharbi recently detailed, in American Affairs, the mounting evidence that Haidt and Lukianoff were right to be concerned, and that these bad ideas have probably been a major driver of the youth mental health crisis, which disproportionately affects politically liberal women and girls. Alarmingly, al-Gharbi cites a survey finding more than half of liberal women, between the ages of 18 and 29 years, report having been diagnosed with a mental health condition.

There are many other examples of pathologically politicized scientific discourses leading to possibly harmful policies and practices, along with limited opportunities for open discussion and debate, including laissez-faire approaches to hard-drug use possibly exacerbating deaths of despair, homelessness, and lawlessness in some major cities; abandoning phonics, explicit instruction, and tracking in education possibly harming reading and math preparedness; and overuse of implausible catastrophic climate change scenarios, likely contributing to paralyzing ‘doomism’ and climate anxiety among youth (as we have written about before), to name a few.

Of course, there are also those, mostly outside the academy, who regularly attempt to politicize and undermine science for conservative ideological reasons. This happens often in our fields of climate change and environmental studies, too. Being smarter about science in policy and politics is not about choosing which partisan side to support. The pathological politicization of science is a problem regardless of the political agenda being advanced.

What can we do to change course? Scientific institutions can start by adopting the University of Chicago’s Kalven report on the University's Role in Political and Social Action, or a similar policy, which states that the university as an institution must remain neutral on most political and social matters, to allow for wide-ranging and vigorous debates and positions by its faculty and students. “The university is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic,” the Kalven report notes. Stanford Law School’s Dean Jenny Martinez recently made a similar commitment, in response to the deplatforming at her school:

“our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion is not going to take the form of having the school administration announce institutional positions on a wide range of current social and political issues, make frequent institutional statements about current news events, or exclude or condemn speakers who hold views on social and political issues with whom some or even many in our community disagree.”

Politicians, regulators, and accreditors concerned about scientific integrity and public trust might consider making such a commitment a pre-condition for funding and accreditation.

Scientists, whether as individuals or as part of organizations, have a wide range of choices in how they choose to engage policy and politics, as one of us (Pielke Jr.) details in the book The Honest Broker. Scientists can be ‘pure scientists’ (who stay out of politics and policy entirely), science arbiters (who translate scientific findings for policy and political audiences, typically through expert advisory bodies), issue advocates (who advocate for specific issues or policies, but do so transparently and openly), or honest brokers of policy alternatives (who present a range of policy options and their expected outcomes). All roles are important in society, what matters most is that the expert community reflects on its possible roles and responsibilities as a part of furthering democratic practices.

Both institutions and individual scientists would improve their scholarship and public trust by committing themselves to open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement, while at the same time rejecting reflexive partisanship by leading scientific organizations. Science supports all of society and all of its political and social diversity.

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