The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion You can’t ‘trust the science’ to tell you how to vote

(Washington Post illustration)
4 min

Nature, the scientific journal, just got a tough lesson on the relationship between science and politics. But it’s refusing to learn from it.

In 2020, Nature endorsed Joe Biden for president. In 2022, it ran an article that decried conservative Supreme Court rulings related to guns, abortion and climate change and suggested that Democrats could increase the number of justices to make it easier to reverse this supposed “war on science.”

If you’re in the opinion-journalism business, you won’t always bring your readers around to your point of view. (Alas.) Sometimes, you’ll persuade them only to trust your judgment a little less. Nature’s Biden endorsement was one of those cases — and it has now published a study quantifying the point.

Among the findings: Trump supporters informed of the endorsement became less likely to click on Nature articles about coronavirus vaccines and less likely to consider U.S. scientists as a group that is informed and unbiased.

Yet the editors of Nature, in the very same issue that published this research, chose not to “follow the science.” Along with the study, Nature ran an editorial insisting that it would still endorse candidates whenever it felt that “science must speak out.” That declaration ought to be more embarrassing for the journal than the study itself.

The idea that science can speak, or that a publication can speak for it, is a kind of mysticism. Science cannot give us answers, for example, about how much risk we should tolerate, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention presumes to advise sexually active women of childbearing age to avoid all alcohol unless they’re using birth control, and to urge all of us to avoid rare or medium-rare steak. Still less can any body of scientific research tell us what gun regulations we should adopt, even as it informs our judgment. Nor can an experiment reveal which laws comply with the Second Amendment.

But that’s Nature’s conceit: The opinions of its editors are not just informed and well-reasoned, as most of us hope ours are. They’re the only opinions consistent with respect for science. President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran — one of the issues mentioned in the Biden endorsement — wasn’t just geopolitically unwise but also unscientific.

Nature’s editors are far from alone in placing so much confidence in the ability of science to provide detailed guidance on political issues. Consider, for example, the open letter signed by hundreds of public health experts after the killing of George Floyd. They argued that large gatherings to protest racial injustice should be permitted because they promoted public health, but other kinds of large gatherings, especially protests against covid-19 shutdowns, should not.

Or recall Anthony S. Fauci’s repeated insistence that criticism of him amounts to criticism of science. Never mind that much of that criticism concerned specific decisions and statements of his, such as his admission that he had changed his estimates of the percentage of the population needed for herd immunity against the coronavirus as he reconsidered what public opinion would tolerate. To question whether public health authorities should be spinning the public in this fashion is not akin to doubting the laws of thermodynamics.

During the coronavirus epidemic, we learned that we could not rely on science for definitive, real-time answers even to questions that studies can in principle answer, such as how effective masks are or how much distance between people was needed to arrest the spread of the disease. More than a year into the pandemic, the New York Times reported that it was “something of a mystery” how the CDC landed on six feet as the correct answer. The CDC switched its guidelines for schools to three feet soon thereafter.

Which brings us back to Nature’s attempt to speak for science. One reason its editors endorsed Biden was that Trump had criticized what they described as the CDC’s “science-based health guidelines … for the use of face masks and social distancing.” Whatever one thinks of Trump’s covid policies, those CDC guidelines were at best loosely based on science. To confuse them for science needlessly undermines confidence in science itself.

Science has become yet another site of political polarization in our country for many reasons. Criticism of the scientific establishment that is sometimes excessive and even paranoid — no, covid was not a hoax designed to make money for pharmaceutical companies — deserves some of the blame. Scientists, and others, are right to push back on such claims. Scientists should also, of course, feel free to participate in the public debate alongside their fellow citizens.

Using scientific authority as a bludgeon for winning political debates is a different matter. Science can’t tell you how to vote in an election. And that new Nature study suggests that pretending it can is rarely effective politics.