For two weeks in a row, in the month of September 2020, voices from the scientific community have been heard in a space from which it traditionally shies away: politics. First, it was Scientific American doing something unprecedented
: endorsing a candidate for the presidency (Biden). Then, the following week (September 24, 2020), we witnessed another episode in the ongoing battle between political power and scientific authority. The presidents of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) and National Academy of Medicine (NAM) issued a terse statement
–also unheard of–decrying the political pressure that the scientific community has had to deal with recently.
The two scientists (a geophysicist and a medical doctor, respectively) reasserted a long standing creed of the scientific community, namely that “Policymaking must be informed by the best available evidence without it being distorted, concealed, or otherwise deliberately miscommunicated.” In other words, the production of scientific conclusions offered to policy-makers should not be interfered with: scientists should be left to do their jobs and not be asked to do the bidding of politicians. They went on to say that they found “alarming” the “politicization of science,” the “overriding of evidence and advice,” and the mocking of scientists. They ended their denunciation with this warning: “Any efforts to discredit the best science and scientists threaten the health and welfare of us all.”
Without ever naming the entity that is ‘undermining the credibility’ of scientists, it does not require a visit to the Delphi oracle to figure out that the target of their attack is none other than Trump and his political acolytes. And it has been an on-going characteristic
of the current political regime.
And then, there was an editorial
from the New England Journal of Medicine
(NEJM, 10/08/2020). Breaking with a long tradition of not trespassing into the political sphere, it echoed the denunciations and concerns of Scientific American
and the presidents of the NAS and the NAM. Entitled “Dying in a Leadership Vacuum,” the editors speak of Trump’s response to COVID as a failure of ‘astonishing magnitude’; of the characterization of “masks [as] political tools rather than effective infection control measures”; of a “rhetoric [that] has politicized the [vaccine] development process”; of an administration that chooses “to ignore and even denigrate experts”; of pressures on public health agencies guided by political calculus rather than scientific evidence; of “uninformed ‘opinion leaders’ and charlatans who obscure the truth and facilitate the promulgation of outright lies”; of an administration that is “dangerously incompetent”; etc. In conclusion, they urge voters “to render judgment” on politicians who “have largely claimed immunity for their actions,” and “not abet them and enable the deaths of thousands more Americans by allowing them to keep their jobs.”
[I just realized (10/16) that I missed an editorial
that denounces Trump from another reputable scientific journal (09/18/2020): Science
. Its editor-in-chief concludes: Trump’s “lies…cost countless lives…”]
The actions of the Trump administration have been a case study in how one branch of government, the executive, has tried to assert its political will over various scientific federal bureaucracies that were seen or meant to be apolitical (e.g. the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). According to the NEJM editors it “has been eviscerated and has suffered dramatic testing and policy failures.” To read more about the CDC during COVID click here
.). And science is fighting back, defending its turf, as best it can, from the encroachment of those who do not belong there.
Any institution that has a stake in the public sphere can be seen by the ruler as a political competitor and one that could undermine one’s power, especially if one is inclined to authoritarianism or absolutism. Western history abounds with such examples. To look into the distant past, we see Henry II (1133-1189) getting rid of the “meddlesome priest” Thomas Becket (aka Thomas à Becket, 1119/20-1170) for opposing his will and for defending the power of the church, or Henry VIII (1491-1547) breaking away from the Roman Church and founding the Church of England, and in the process, making himself its Supreme Head, all that because Pope Clement VII (1478-1534) did not agree to annul his first marriage. And speaking of the church, and more to the point of science, there is the Galileo (1564-1642) case in which the Roman church, that had a monopoly over what constituted proper knowledge, sentenced the polymath from Pisa to spend the rest of his days under house arrest (it could have been worse, e.g. Giordano Bruno [1548-1600]).
Of course, I do not mean to imply that only political rulers try to bend science to their will, it has been known that commercial entities have done the same, when their economic interests are at stake–the case of cigarette manufacturers comes to mind, if I’m not mistaken.
As mentioned in a previous post
about Scientific American
, the actions of the Trump administration have sought to undermine the professional and cognitive authority of scientists. Trump has tried to subjugate them to his political will. But this is not an easy task to accomplish within the American polity. Science is an institution with decades of established legitimacy and authority, and it is supported by the State (there is a whole bureaucratic and administrative infrastructure that has been built because of science’s authority). It will take more than a politician’s narrow political agenda, even if he occupies the oval office, to overcome that.
The current occupant of the White House does not help his cause by advocating UV light treatment as a COVID cure or an injection of disinfectant–silence is golden, don’t they say, especially regarding matters about which one knows precious little. Remember Trump’s promotion of hydroxychloroquine; it was followed quickly by a reminder from Dr. Anthony Fauci (director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) that there was no credible scientific evidence of its efficacy. Much more effective is the placement of political commissars inside the various scientific agencies with the task of controlling the message these entities broadcast to the public–which seems to have happened
. For example, in October 2019
, Trump ordered federal agencies, including the FDA, to submit all their guidances to his administration’s political appointees for review and approval to be implemented. More recently, he has rejected a proposed FDA guidance
on developing vaccines for COVID-19. It is reported
that the administration opposes a minimum follow-up that would delay approval of a new vaccine until after November 3 (Election Day).
There is an aspect of these protestations from the scientific community that we should not overlook. They do tend to convey the impression that Science (note the big “S”) somehow is above politics; that It is not touched by politics; that It is not influenced, to use a more encompassing term, by the power structure of the society in which It exists. Science is a human activity and as such it is historically and socially grounded–which means that it takes place within a specific context. The production of scientific knowledge is a very expensive (in more ways than one) proposition: it requires funding, a lot of funding. Who are its major clients? Since the end of WWII, certainly, they have been the military and industry. They hold the purse strings. Remember President Eisenhower’s (1890-1969) farewell address (1961) in which he coined the expression “military-industrial complex,” and warned the American citizenry to be alert to the “potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power [that] exists and will persist.”
Science advisory boards, which determine who and what research gets funding, are composed of members of corporations, of weapons labs and think-tanks, of the military, and academics. The latter provide these bodies with an aura not only of credibility but also of neutrality. However, often many of these academics might sit on the boards of corporations. All of this gives the general direction of science in society: what will be researched, what will not, what will have priority and what will not.
But within the constraints set by the political-economic system in which science is active, the scientific community is largely autonomous: they go where the evidence as negotiated among scientists leads them–regardless, on the whole, of what the outside world might think about it. And, on the whole again, it polices itself: punishes those who are guilty of misconduct, sidelines those who question the scientific consensus, etc.
So if Science is fully embedded into the power structure of the society and molded by it (Politics with a big “P”), what is this “politicization” these voices from the scientific community are talking about? They are referring to the politics of the politicians–politics with a small “p,” i.e. of the self-serving variety: actions to implement an ideological agenda, to avoid damaging their standing among the public, etc. I have already mentioned a few, but sadly, some would say, there are many more. For example, as a climate change denier Trump has reversed many extant regulations, which sought to mitigate the harmful effects our carbon-based Western “civilization” (M. Gandhi, attr.) has had on the environment. Then, in September 2019, there was the bizarre incident when Trump claimed that Alabama was going to be hit by hurricane Dorian despite what the meteorologists from the federal government said: there was no evidence that it would–it didn’t. And the list
Some would say: what can you expect from a man
who, to borrow Victor Hugo’s characterization of France’s dictator Napoleon III, “lies as others breathe” (”Cet homme ment comme les autres hommes respirent”)? Or, for the anglophiles among readers, how Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford, described Richard Boyle, 1st Earl of Cork, and father of the scientist Robert Boyle of eponymous law: he was “never known to deliver one truth.”
For the first time in its 175-year history, Scientific American
, in its October issue
, has endorsed a candidate for the presidency. What led a venerable institution like Scientific American
to enter the political fray?
For the past two centuries, science has carved itself the role as the sole arbiter of what is and what is not, both in nature and, to some extent, society–this was not always the case, as Galileo (1564-1642) could attest. Scientific experts, be they natural scientists or social scientists, are called upon routinely by Congress, and other institutions, to give their views and guidance on matters within their purview. One of science’s most cherished attributes, one it prides itself on, is its ability to present an image of an activity that is above petty political squabbling.
Science derives its authority from the knowledge it produces, of course, but, also, from its professional autonomy: i.e. the ability to resist pressures from the outside world–the non-scientific community; to conduct its activities as it sees fit; and even to police itself. Whether this ideal has always been met is a matter of debate–after all, it is a human community. Yet, science has been able to gain the confidence of most members of society, including most policy and decision makers.
I am sure most readers will have guessed the answer to the question at the opening of this post as soon as it was asked: Trump. For the first time in recent memory, America has had an occupant of the White House with a distinct anti-science bent. Many people will remember that before moving into his current abode, Trump was known to have said that climate change was a concept created by the Chinese–though later he claimed he meant that statement as a joke. Yet, later still, he called it “the global warming hoax” and “an expensive hoax.” No need to belabor the point: the scientific community had some reasons to be concerned. And Trump did not disappoint them. The actions of his administration constitute a long list of dubious policies from a scientific point of view (before and during COVID). From the standpoint of a community that pushes decision makers to base their policies on evidence, the Trump-style is, to put it mildly, distinctly at odds. This led to another, albeit earlier, unprecedented event (at least in my lifetime, if memory serves): the “March for Science,” which took place in Washington D.C. and other American cities (and beyond) in April 2017.
But most worrisome to scientists is the political pressure from the Trump administration with a view to influence scientific conclusions that are not to his liking. One of the hallmarks of Western science has been its ability to maintain its autonomy and not be influenced by the political sphere (with few notable exceptions). Science and politics were two domains that were not supposed to intersect–or, at least, the scientific community wished it to be so. Of course, the two interacted, but the polity always bowed to science’s superior knowledge–more often than not. Under the current regime things have changed. Some says it resembles what happens in more robust, i.e. authoritarian, political systems. Look at what happened to Russian dissident Alexey Navalny. Aside from an attempt on his life, his supporters and close associates believe that the doctors at the hospital in Tomsk, Siberia, where he ended up, were pressured (by Kremlin political operatives) to deny that he was the victim of a deliberate poisoning. When Navalny was transferred to the Charité Hospital in Berlin–lo and behold, the diagnosis had changed: the man had indeed been poisoned with some chemical agent (from the Soviet-era Novichok group) that affects the central nervous system.
Scientific American has been the mouth piece of all things great and beautiful in science. Its primary audience being the larger lay community. As such it emphasizes, what have been called, the ideals of science: that it seeks knowledge and truth without prejudice of any kind; that its conclusions are based on the scientific evidence it uncovers; that it upholds these norms against any extraneous intrusion trying to influence it to do otherwise. Now, it finds itself forced by circumstances to enter the political arena and to address what it considers a most dangerous attack on the integrity of science.