Editors at the nation’s top science journals have been on a bit of a tear lately. For months they’ve been working overtime to publish urgent research analyzing the coronavirus pandemic. Now, in the final weeks leading up to the presidential election, several prestigious research journals and science magazines have delivered editorials excoriating President Trump for his reflexively anti-science approach to policymaking during a global health crisis. Centuries of tradition have previously barred buttoned-up leaders of the scientific community from publicly opposing or endorsing presidential candidates. Now the white coats are off.
In an editorial entitled “Dying in a Leadership Vacuum” in early October, The New England Journal of Medicine, considered America’s premier clinical research journal, attacked President Trump’s pandemic response as dithering and incompetent. “Anyone else who recklessly squandered lives and money in this way would be suffering legal consequences,” the editors wrote. Scientific American went a step further and outright endorsed Joe Biden for president, calling him a “fact-based” alternative to the dangers of Trump’s right-wing agenda aimed at rolling back environmental protections, gutting health care, and interfering in public research institutions like the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Both editorials were firsts for journals with 208-year and 175-year histories, respectively. The Lancet Oncology, Nature, and the famed magazine Science have also staked out political stances. H. Holden Thorp, editor in chief of Science’s family of journals, called this spate of dissent from the upper echelons of his field “unprecedented.”
The pandemic has turned once-obscure epidemiologists and other researchers into highly visible public figures. Some in the scientific community worry these scathing editorials come at the risk of further eroding the public’s trust in scientific expertise. “I’m really of two minds about it,” Harold Pollack, a professor focused on health policy at the University of Chicago, and a self-identified liberal Democrat, told me. “I think it’s important to be truthful, and the institutions of civil society have to be straightforward and say, ‘This is not OK.’ But I think it comes with a big cost. I do think that for many conservative people—many who are not particularly comfortable with President Trump—this will reinforce their view that elite research academia, public health and medicine, has disdain for their views.”
Argument and critique on thorny subjects is vital to scientific inquiry, however. In this case, America’s unusually high death rate from Covid-19 created unique conditions for science journals’ decision to criticize a sitting president for the first time. Whether he’s falsely comparing Covid-19 to the average flu, wishfully thinking the virus will disappear “like a miracle” when the weather gets warmer, or indulging the MyPillow guy’s snake oil cure, Trump continues to discuss the pandemic in the same blundering infomercial-speak that he brings to every other topic. After being infected with Covid-19, Trump vowed to kiss everyone in the audience at a recent rally.
Scientists should call this out. But the right’s anti-science agenda and undermining of scientific expertise precedes the pandemic. Denying evolution and climate change, rolling back environmental regulations, banning fetal tissue research, and curtailing women’s reproductive rights are staples of mainstream conservatism. Trump’s agenda and rhetoric simply lack the polished veneer. His approach isn’t much crueler—it’s just more obvious.
The history of science and medicine in America is replete with incidents where toxic ideologies infect research agendas and cause harm to vulnerable populations. Despite little scientific evidence, newspapers and magazines in the 1980s and ’90s cited expert opinions that a generation of “crack-babies” would grow up to become part of a “bio-underclass.” Around the same time, sociologists gave clout to the “superpredator” myth, which stigmatized disproportionately Black teenagers. Both of these false narratives came out of scientific disciplines and were used to justify uber-punitive, racist sentencing laws that fuel mass incarceration.
A more recent incident where “science” was used by a presidential administration to do harm was President George W. Bush’s torture program. It was revealed after Bush left office that the American Psychological Association secretly collaborated with the CIA to offer legal and ethical cover to torture prisoners at Abu Graib who were suspected of having ties to terrorist plots.
The politicization of science and research goes back much further in America. Perhaps the most infamous case is the horrific Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, in which the U.S. Public Health Service deliberately withheld treatment for syphilis from hundreds of Black men. There’s a common misconception that the Tuskegee study took place in secret. In fact, results from the study were published in academic journals. Black scientists were stunned when they saw these papers and tried to blow the whistle multiple times, but the 40-year study didn’t end until a white government researcher told a reporter to look into it. We now know that the architects of the Tuskegee study graduated from medical school at the University of Virginia, which at the time was a hotbed for eugenics, where students were trained to believe that race was a key factor in the etiology and treatment of disease.
America’s government-science institutions have been party to atrocities that should have long ago put to rest the notion that medicine and science are apolitical projects. But despite these obvious cases of politicization, academic science and medicine, as institutions, still tend to lean toward putting their heads down and doing the slow, grinding work of producing knowledge that advances society forward. And when it comes to political decorum, the leadership of highbrow scientific communities and organizations errs on the conservative side.
The American Psychiatric Association’s Goldwater Rule, which prevents APA members from commenting on the mental health of public figures they haven’t personally examined, is a classic case. After Trump was elected, mental health experts began to describe him as having narcissistic personality disorder. Trump’s own niece, a clinical psychologist, wrote in her book that she thinks her uncle, the president, suffers from personality disorders, including a caffeine-induced sleep disorder because he drinks so much Diet Coke. The APA does not like this and has doubled down on its “continued and unwavering commitment” to the Goldwater Rule, telling members to refrain from commenting about the presentation of Trump’s bizarre mental states “on cable news appearances, books, or in social media. Armchair psychiatry or the use of psychiatry as a political tool is the misuse of psychiatry and is unacceptable and unethical.”
There is no Goldwater Rule preventing epidemiologists and other experts from calling out bad public health policy. And these recent editorials from America’s top science editors, focused specifically on the pandemic response, are now showing cracks in the apolitical facade maintained by a scientific elite—an elite, it is worth mentioning, that has traditionally been made up disproportionately of older, affluent, white men at East Coast universities.
There’s an important distinction to make when discussing the scientific community, Gregg Gonsalves, an epidemiologist at Yale School of Public Health, told me. There are the everyday working scientists who are called on to testify to Congress and frequently advocate on political and policy matters. Then there’s what Gonsalves described as the “upper of the upper-crust,” who run esteemed journals like NEJM and Science. That it’s the latter criticizing Trump and Republicans in their own outlets is what makes this departure from apolitical norms so noteworthy. “I think if you start digging around, you’ll realize there’s a generational shift happening in these places,” said Gonsalves, who cut his teeth as an activist-scientist working in the ’90s with the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. He pointed to recent articles and commentaries about public health and Black Lives Matter in NEJM as evidence of change.
“No matter what people say, there is no such thing as being apolitical or neutral,” Ayana Jordan, a Yale psychiatrist and researcher who specializes in treating substance use disorders, told me. Jordan’s work treating and researching drug use, she feels, is hard to separate from the political reality of the Black community being incarcerated and killed over its drug use. “Science is a journey of improving life. How can these journals stick by and not say anything? I think they realized we’re at a place where they have to speak up.”
Between the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, scientists and researchers are recognizing, like a lot of Americans, that appearing impartial is not necessarily the same as telling the truth. “Rather than seeing these organizations as suddenly politically motivated, I see this action as showing that our political processes have degenerated so far as to throw into question obvious facts and reason,” Ryan Marino, a Cleveland-based toxicologist, told me. In this light, the “politicization” of scientific journals is in fact a necessary corrective to politicians perverting science.
While history is replete with atrocities in the name of science, there is also a strong tradition of dissident scientists who courageously speak up, risking their lives and careers in the process. “What I love about science,” Jordan said, “is that science is true whether you like it or not.” Working rigorously and following a line of inquiry wherever it leads doesn’t need to mean burying one’s head in the sand.