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.