Should scientific journals take a political stance? – Wiring Science

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  • On August 25, Science’s News & Analysis division published a refutation of a monologue that appeared on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight.
  • Carlson described Anthony Fauci as a fraud who committed serious crimes. Science, in turn, validated Carlson’s claims and found none to be true.
  • Science writer and lecturer Stuart Ritchie discusses on his blog whether scientific journals should publish political refutations of this kind or whether they should stay on track.
  • In this article, Professor Gautam Menon looks at the same questions – should they or not? From an Indian perspective.

A minor line for this article is accompanied by a disclaimer: The opinions expressed here belong to him and do not represent his organizations.

This may seem surprising. Individuals have opinions. But what might an institutional viewpoint mean?

Some enjoy the disclaimer text. Robert Park, who used to write a regular monthly column called “What’s New” for the American Physical Society, would end by saying, “The opinions are those of the author and are not necessarily shared by the university, but they should be.”

Informed scientific opinion is open to the idea that plants must be genetically modified if, by doing so, it is possible to produce more nutritious foods as well as crops that are resistant to drought or pests. People, to the extent they think about these questions at all, are more skeptical. It is hard for elected politicians to be insensitive to what their constituents think.

A manned lunar mission would be considered by the majority of scientists to be a waste of resources, and highly unlikely to yield any new knowledge. But the element of national pride in such an achievement, encouraged by politicians of all stripes, enters here, beyond what should be a purely scientific assessment.

Where should scholarly journals intervene in those turbulent fields where science and politics intersect? And to what extent should magazines try to educate the public about these issues, knowing that their views may not be popular, even if they are right?

Editorial lines taken by international high-profile scientific journals such as SciencesAnd the temper nature or the Proceedings of the Royal Society It is rarely political. They may indicate the need for additional funding for science or even comment on science Today’s scandalbut for them to make explicit political points is rare.

However, there are exceptions. In 2008, temper nature It endorsed a US presidential candidate for the first time in its 150-plus-year history, Barack Obama).

Medical journals, such as gamma or scalpel, somewhat bolder in their editorial discourse. But this is also because, as the German pathologist and politician Rudolf Virchow put it, “medicine is not a social science and politics is nothing but medicine on a large scale.”

This reservation is partly because scholarly journals are often owned by large multinational corporations. temper nature It was acquired by Springer in 2010, expanding the reach of a company that is already making huge profits. the magazine SciencesHowever, it is owned by a non-profit scientific association.

On August 25 this year, SciencesThe “News and Analysis” section published a refutation of a monologue that appeared a few days ago in Fox News Tucker Carlson Tonight Show. In it, Carlson targeted Anthony Fauci, calling him a serious fraud who committed serious crimes. This was three days after Fauci announced that he would retire from his position as chief medical advisor to the President of the United States at the end of the year.

What Carlson says matters because of the size of his audience on American television. In July 2020, his show broke the record for the highest rating program in the history of US satellite news. He speaks regularly to about 4.5 million viewers, significantly more than his CNN and MSNBC competitors.

SciencesHis refutation indicated that nearly everything “Tucker Carlson said… was misleading or false”.

Regarding Fauci, Carlson said:

Then he publicly lied about the masks. You should wear one while riding a bike, you are getting plenty of life-enhancing oxygen. What you really need is more carbon dioxide. Be like a tree. That’s what he was saying in public, but in private, he wrote that “the typical mask you buy at the drugstore isn’t really effective at keeping the virus away.”

Sciences refute like this:

Fauci did not utter these supposed quotes publicly. The special note is from E-mail Sent February 2020. Evidence about the effectiveness of masks at the start of the pandemic has been limited. As Fauci explained, he changed his mind about promoting the use of masks after it became clear that there was no shortage of masks, asymptomatic COVID-19 was common and was leading to many infections, and the virus could spread through aerosols.”

As Carlson claimed, “Researchers at Johns Hopkins [University] Admit that the shutdowns didn’t actually work. They ruined people’s lives for no reason at all.”

Sciences Reportedly, “This working paper, written by economists – not epidemiologists – has been heavily criticized. Several other studies have concluded that lockdowns have in fact slowed the spread of the virus, prevented severe illness and deaths, and helped reduce stress on hospital systems.”

In an interesting blog post, science writer and lecturer Stuart Ritchie put his own thoughts on the matter as follows:

“…so why am I so suspicious of Sciences Piece? It’s the kind of thing you see all the time on dedicated political fact-checking sites – but I’ve never seen it in a scientific journal. I strongly support exposing misleading and false arguments. But is it a good thing that scientific journals are now publishing direct and detailed attacks on shocking right-wing footballers? “

Ritchie presents his arguments, both for and against, in a conversational style between “alternative selves”, Stuart Alpha, who is against entering politics in journals, and Stuart Prime, who is more sympathetic to scholarly journals that publish similar interventions.

Stuart Alpha explained his view by saying, “The danger is that if ‘science’ becomes something that is seen as too closely associated with liberal politics and strongly opposed to conservative politicians… it will be very difficult to persuade conservatives to take it seriously in the future.”

Stuart Prime replied:

There is a massive attack on science, and on scholars like Fauci, by popular media figures on the right in the US (and to a lesser extent in the UK). Lots of people – 3 or 4 million every night – watch Tucker Carlson’s show. It’s insane to anyone who thinks that he is spreading such blatant lies, night after night, to an audience of this size. You really advocate for scientific journals to sit idly by and publish nothing that stands up to this relentless assault? Incidentally, this abuse is (at least part of) why people lost faith in science in the first place.”

In India, several publications of the Indian Academy of Sciences, among which the pioneer current science A journal created by CV Raman et al. in 1932, published by the multinational publishing company Springer. However, it is editorially independent.

Despite this independence, Indian scholarly journals have kept a strict silence on intersecting questions in politics. Perhaps this silence is excessive. Strong debates regarding political interference in science, political attacks on scientists, or even distortions in finance and governance with political origins, are absent from their editorials.

Its objectivity – particularly as seen from outside the scientific community – is sure to be lost if Indian journals take an explicitly political aspect. But equally, it would be strange for them to remain detached, as it now appears, from the important social and political issues of our time, especially in those to which the scientific perspective contributes primarily.

One area in which scientific journals in India might reasonably intervene relates to the idea that products derived from cows are in no way special. This is contrary to scientific understanding of any kind.

Ideally, these ideas should have remained confined to cultural practice, without the need for any scholarly comment either for or against. It suffices to mutually understand the need to separate public and private spaces.

Not taking a position becomes more difficult to justify when this idea transcends being a relatively harmless cultural connotation and moves into a political space, to serve a particular political symbolism, and with repercussions for our society.

Other issues at the intersection of science and politics include the current and continuing overemphasis on ancient Indian texts as the true source of all knowledge, scientific and otherwise. Tension at the interface of superstition and rationality is inevitable. However, the assassinations of rationalists Narendra Dhabulkar and Govind Bansar show that even perfectly reasonable opinions held by scholars can provoke a fatal reaction.

The average Indian has no real way of knowing what the science says on any given issue. Places where they might hear arguments for or against a science issue are few and often unreachable.

Given this empty space, it might be reasonable to ask on those occasions where science is (wrongly) used in the service of explicit political aims, that scholarly premises should consider it appropriate to invoke it. Editorial articles for scientific journals usually reach only a limited, technical audience. However, when such interventions are reproduced in other media facing the public more, they will be taken seriously, especially if they are believed to be unbiased.

Therefore, when commenting on political matters, editors of scholarly journals should retain their own editorial flexibility only for issues they are in a better position to influence than anyone else. They must stand by evidence, scientific method, and rigorous analysis – all core values ​​of scientific practice. All of these, of course, are also independent of any personal political opinions.

Regardless, they should stay away from the distractions of broader discourse. Naturalists as a group have nothing special to contribute to discussions about economics, unemployment, foreign affairs, social inequality, or political activism as a whole.

There is nothing to gain, and in fact a lot to lose if scientific journals comment on questions outside their area of ​​expertise. To be taken seriously in areas where their views should naturally count, they must be measured by the interventions they make as well as being scientific and accurate in what they say and how they say it.

They must also resist the rush to sway any current, past or future political winds, if they are seen as trustworthy voices.

Gautam I Menon is Professor at Ashoka University, Sonpat, and Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not represent his organizations.

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