My jaw nearly hit the floor in disbelief last month as I took a cursory glance through my email inbox, and was confronted with the following headline: “Biden and Harris look to restore science to U.S. governance.” This would be unsurprising were it from a conventional media source, perhaps, say, The New York Times or Washington Post, but the source of this “news” article was far more sinister. It was Chemistry & Engineering News (C&EN), the flagship news magazine of the American Chemical Society, one of the largest science professional organizations in the world.
Here, ‘bipartisan cooperation is presented not as an opportunity for unity and compromise, but rather as a barrier to progress.
The article, attributed to C&EN itself, laments “Donald J. Trump’s lies about election fraud,” and the “exodus of experienced civil servants over the past 4 years” that “left federal agencies depleted.” By contrast, the magazine’s editors laud President Biden’s efforts at “reversing Trump’s executive orders” and the new administration’s initial priorities, quoting directly from the White House press release, “to control the COVID-19 pandemic, provide economic relief, tackle climate change, and advance racial equality and civil rights, as well as immediate actions to reform our immigration system and restore America’s standing in the world.” Successfully realizing these noble goals will be difficult, however, because of those pesky Republicans in Congress: “the Senate is already lagging at confirming nominees to Biden’s cabinet,” and, “although Democrats technically control Congress, margins are still slim, and passing major legislation will require bipartisan cooperation.” Here, “bipartisan cooperation” is presented not as an opportunity for unity and compromise, but rather as a barrier to progress.
The implication of the article is clear: the Democrats are enlightened, enacting policies backed by scientific consensus and promising solutions to social, health, and environmental challenges. Their path is hindered only by those Republican scallywags who live in the dark ages, serving as a foil to progress.
Despite media portrayals to the contrary, science policy, in reality, is highly nuanced—tradeoffs obviously must exist with any decision, and many factors must be balanced. Consider energy consumption: true, there is scientific consensus that greenhouse gas emissions impact climate. The solutions to this problem, however, are extraordinarily murky. Electric vehicles and wind turbines rely heavily on rare earth elements that are environmentally harmful to mine and isolate. Nuclear power releases no greenhouse gasses, but there are concerns about how to safely dispose of waste. Efficiency barriers remain for solar panels, while energy storage is a daunting challenge. Natural gas has emerged as a cost-effective energy source that is significantly cleaner than coal but still produces some nonzero amount of greenhouse gasses. And, naturally, the economic costs of each source must be considered. Accounting for such complexities, it is possible to advocate for a range of energy sources to optimize social benefit, and proponents of each policy could make a convincing claim to be “following the science.”
Similarly, with the COVID-19 pandemic, health concerns must be balanced with economic concerns. States, even nations, have taken a range of approaches, from shutting down completely to remaining open, and no clear consensus has yet been reached as to which approach has been the most effective. Like every administration before it, the Trump presidency prioritized certain areas of science and achieved considerable successes in these domains: space exploration, military research and development, quantum information science, and, perhaps their crowning achievement, Operation Warp Speed. Specific policies may be subject to praise or criticism, but the blanket suggestion that his (or any other) administration is pro- or anti-science is a false and deceptive argument entirely unworthy of a prestigious “nonpartisan” publication such as C&EN. A discussion previewing the scientific policies of the Biden/Harris administration is appropriate; an editorial denigrating one party while exalting another is an insult to the magazine’s readership.
Such blatant partisanship in science would perhaps be more tolerable were it not becoming so pervasive. An editorial from November in the prestigious magazine Nature gleefully described the Biden/Harris victory as “a win for facts, research, and empathy,” noting that the “country, and the world, can begin to close the door on four years of chaos, catastrophe, incompetence, and the normalization of false information.” For the first time, top publications such as the Scientific American and Lancet made an endorsement in a U.S. presidential election, opting (unsurprisingly) for Joe Biden. Taken together, the continued blending of left-wing politics with research institutions and publishers will only serve to alienate those on the political right, further eroding public trust in the sciences. Moreover, the politicization of science will inevitably lead to the silencing of valid research that may be politically inconvenient.
CANCEL CULTURE COMES TO THE NATURAL SCIENCES
Censorship at the hands of “woke” companies such as Amazon has received some publicity, at least in conservative media. A lesser-known (but equally alarming) incident of cancel culture is growing within natural science institutions. The ramification of this ever-increasing politicization of science is increasingly apparent in the censorship of scientists who espouse culturally unpopular opinions. For example, research from Brown University’s Lisa Littman, which suggested that gender transitions in teenagers, or “rapid onset gender dysphoria,” may be driven by social factors, created a firestorm of controversy. Brown removed the paper from the University website, followed by an investigation by the publishing journal PLOS One. Similar arguments on gender have been made by Abigail Shrier in her 2020 book Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, resulting in retailers like Amazon and Target banning ads for the book. The same goes for Ryan Anderson’s book When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment.
Consider also what occurred in May 2020, at the hands of Angewandte Chemie, a highly regarded publication of the German Chemical Society. An article by Tomáš Hudlický, from Brock University, focused on factors impacting progress in organic chemical syntheses. Among the many points made in the manuscript, Hudlický argued that hiring practices aimed at increasing diversity (as opposed to merit-based hiring) had a negative influence on productivity:
“The rise and emphasis on hiring practices that suggest or even mandate equality in terms of absolute numbers of people in specific subgroups is counter-productive if it results in discrimination against the most meritorious candidates. Such practice affects the format of interviews and has led to the emergence of mandatory ‘training workshops’ on gender equity, inclusion, diversity, and discrimination.”
The paper was accepted for publication after gaining approval from two editors and independent reviewers. Predictably, severe blowback over the article ensued immediately after its appearance online, with 16 of the journal’s editorial board members resigning in protest, along with condemnation from multiple national chemical societies. Shortly thereafter, the paper was removed by Angewandte Chemie, the two editors involved with the manuscript were suspended, and the reviewers permanently banned from ever peer-reviewing for the journal. A similar event occurred just a few months later, in August 2020, with Norman Wang at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Wang was demoted for publishing an article in the Journal of the American Heart Association that criticized affirmative action hiring practices, suggesting that such policies are often detrimental to underrepresented minority students. This paper was also withdrawn following backlash.
If scientists cannot express controversial ideas … without risking their careers, then there is little hope for growth or progress, and the last pillar of our society will have fallen victim to cancel culture.
Topics related to diversity are inherently controversial, and will understandably evoke strong opinions. However, the way controversy is typically (and ideally) handled within the sciences is through professional challenges: scientists who disagree have the opportunity to submit a rebuttal manuscript, with data and critiques, that contradict the original publication, creating the healthy and meaningful debate that exemplifies scientific discovery. Instead, the publishers in these and an increasing number of cases are choosing an extraordinarily heavy-handed and alarming approach by canceling the authors and anyone else associated with the offending publications.
Our society has long professed that scientific truths do and should triumph over censorship. Our schools teach, with reverence, about Galileo and Charles Darwin standing up to religious zealots to defend scientific truth. The play (and later film) “Inherit the Wind” immortalizes John Scopes’ fight against the state to teach evolution. Today, however, society is blissfully (or perhaps willfully) oblivious to the specter of censorship that hangs over nearly every aspect of our social fabric, from college campuses to sports to entertainment and to literature.
If scientists cannot express controversial ideas (particularly when backed by sound data and experimental approaches) without risking their careers, then there is little hope for growth or progress, and the last pillar of our society will have fallen victim to cancel culture. Can a scientist publish research outside of the mainstream narrative on climate change, gender, public health, or other controversial topics without risking his or her career? How can we trust institutions that resort to censorship at the slightest hint of public backlash?
Newscasters and scientists alike bemoan the resistance of the general public to “trust the science” on issues such as vaccines and climate. However, the ever-increasing blatant partisanship from our scientific leaders will inevitably catalyze distrust, not alleviate it like the editors of Chemistry & Engineering News assert. With this trend of politicization, science that postulates politically inconvenient conclusions is being increasingly silenced, and if scientific institutions continue to condescend, criticize, and cancel anyone to the right of center politically, trust and support of these institutions will continue to erode.
Andrew Breitbart famously noted that the culture is upstream from politics, a rallying cry that has spurred conservatives confronting cancel culture to build alternatives: alternative media, entertainment, and education. Will we need to include alternative research institutions and scientific journals as well?