The Voice of Scientific Authority Is Aghast…and Clueless

The Voice of Scientific Authority Is Aghast…and Clueless November 9, 2020

Scientific authority slaughtered

It took four days after the 2020 U.S. presidential election for the country to identify a clear winner. The delay shouldn’t be terribly surprising, given the complications of a coronavirus pandemic, mail-in voting, the closeness of many of the key races, and the generally bizarro nature of the year 2020. (Remember the enormous Australian mega-wildfires back in January? Yeah, me neither.) But the most prestigious scientific publication in the world, Nature, seems completely shocked that Democrat Joe Biden didn’t crush incumbent Republican Donald Trump in an utter landslide. News writer Jeff Tollefson reports that voices of scientific authority are “aghast” at the thin margin of the vote, believing they “must work harder to communicate the importance of facts, science and truth” in order to…get people to vote for their preferred candidate.

Scientific authority, which Nature is now wielding for political advocacy, has taken a pretty serious beating recently. People all over the world (not just red states in the U.S.) have revolted against mask-wearing and social-distancing orders. Despite the overwhelming evidence that human activity is harming the climate, support for climate change research is sharply divided by political affiliation. Populists are increasingly skeptical of basic social science and statistics. In short, mistrust of experts is at truly epidemic levels (pun intended).

Weirdly, though, the editorial staff at Nature — a British publication and the highest-impact general scientific journal in the world, which issued an unprecedented endorsement of Joe Biden this year — thinks that the way to solve this problem is to berate the American public for not voting in sufficient numbers for their preferred candidate (remember that Biden still won). From the editorial:

“It is depressing to see that the American electorate have not heeded the evidence of the last four years to give a strong message about the damage being caused by Trump’s actions and behaviour, for their own country as well as the wider world,” says Athene Donald, a physicist at the University of Cambridge, UK.

Michael Lubell, a physicist at the City College of New York who tracks science policy, worries about what the results of the election say about the value that many Americans put on truth. Trump, former host of the television show The Apprentice, is well known for making inaccurate statements and spreading misinformation to further his political agenda. “What I see is people rejecting reality, and opting more for a reality show,” says Lubell. “And that to me is frightening.”

It’s understandable that many scientists would be deeply suspicious of Donald Trump, who indeed does play fast and loose with the facts. I happen to agree that Trump is basically Loki, the Norse god of chaos, personified for the Twitter era. His primary job skill is wreaking havoc. As a person, he is very poorly suited to the office of presidency. He and most Republicans are completely out to lunch on climate change.

But for a group of people who pride themselves on being the smartest folks in any room, scientists calling into question the basic moral worth of all Republican voters is a terrifically self-defeating move. Let me repeat: Biden won both the Electoral College and the popular vote. For any readers unfamiliar with how elections work, this means that Donald Trump will no longer be the president of the United States. The party that Nature wanted to win…well, won.

Yet somehow Nature is unhappy because the incumbent president of the United States did not get sacked more dramatically and because the Senate looks likely to remain in Republican hands. By comparison, the article points out, a full 87% of scientists reported in a recent survey that they supported Biden. The implied message is, Why can’t the American public be more like scientists?

Science Knows Stats. And Measurements. And Experimental Design. Political Capital? Not So Much

This is one way to respond to the American election, I suppose. But in light of the growing worldwide mistrust of experts and science, the more reasonable and psychologically astute response would be almost literally anything other than claiming that geophysicists and stem-cell researchers have some sort of monopoly on political wisdom.

To put it bluntly, throwing the enormous reputation and institutional clout of Nature behind a particular political candidate in a hotly contested election, in the midst of a pandemic, during the most acute period of ideological polarization in 150 years, was a staggeringly good way of ensuring that mistrust of scientific experts just keeps right on getting worse. Publicly shaming and tsk-tsking people is a surefire way to torch goodwill. Would it really hurt to be a little more circumspect, a little more curious about why people might vote for a guy like Trump?

I know I’m just repeating things that countless non-leftist writers have been saying for the past four years, but writing off 50% of the American electorate as shameless or ignorant is boneheaded on a massive scale. It can do nothing but further convince the conservative half of the country that scientific experts really are biased, that scientific “expertise” really is just Trojan-horse left-liberal partisanship, and that it has no obligation whatsoever to pay attention to what scientists have to say.

It shouldn’t be necessary to point out that socially motivated reasoning drives much of people’s interpretations and acceptance of scientific claims. That is, people process scientific information partly on the basis of their own social group identities and the perceived authority of the scientists delivering the message. For example, motivated cognition has led to the gradual transmogrification of environmentalism — which once enjoyed broad support from both conservatives and liberals — into a generally “liberal” identity marker. 

One might be tempted to blame conservatives for this partisan shift, of course. But much of the responsibility lies with scientists and public science communicators — whose job it is, after all, to disseminate important information in an effective way. People aren’t getting the message? Then the scientific messengers need to learn about their audience and try different strategies, not berate them for having their own priorities and perspectives. Solving problems on the job is how grownups behave.

Doing A “Better Job” Doesn’t Mean Lecturing Even More Sternly

To be fair, the Nature column does emphasize, quite strenuously, that scientists need to “do a better job” of communicating scientific values to the public. But there are two problems with they way they envision doing so.

First, the column isn’t about convincing a skeptical public that anthropogenic climate change is real, which is a totally legitimate and important objective. It’s about convincing them to vote for particular candidates in the national elections of a single country. I’m sorry, but this is out of science’s authoritative wheelhouse. Full stop. The fact that you’re an expert in condensed matter physics or molecular biology doesn’t imply that you’re an authority on home decoration, much less in political economy. 

Second, the piece doesn’t anywhere mention the possibility that improving scientific messaging might entail trying to better understand the people scientists say they’re trying to reach. There’s a near-total absence of interest in or curiosity about why people might have voted for The Wrong Guy in the first place. The assumption seems to be that voting for Trump could only reflect lamentable ignorance or pure maliciousness.

Neither the Nature article’s author nor any of his sources, then, seem to consider the flicker of a possibility that anyone, anywhere, might vote for Donald Trump on the basis of any legitimate cost-benefit calculations, or out of priorities that make sense to them but simply don’t match the priorities that most scientists hold. 

Of course, recognizing some moral legitimacy in Republican voters’ decision would entail a two-way conversation with them. But what the author of this Nature article — tagged under “News” while bearing the decidedly non-neutral headline “Scientists aghast as hopes for landslide Biden election victory vanish” — demonstrates is that they do not envision a two-way conversation. Instead, they see expertise as traveling only from experts to laypeople: a one-way conduit. Experts have nothing to learn from the exchange, only things to teach (or “explain”). 

Conservatives Exist. This Is Not a Tragedy.

While Nature may be bamboozled by the fact that millions of Americans voted for Trump, the fact is that in terms of the popular and electoral votes, this was a relatively normal election — about half the the people voted for the Democratic candidate, and the other half voted Republican. This is how elections in the U.S. tend to work. It shouldn’t be shocking, or even surprising. And lecturing voters about their ignorance isn’t liable to convert them gladly to your cause. 

Unfortunately, though, I doubt that the editors of Nature will stop lecturing and scolding conservatives anytime soon, because in scientific and academic circles the received wisdom, since about 2015, is that conservative ideology is not just debatably wrong, but actually an illegitimate and indefensible worldview. It simply doesn’t have a valid place in public discourse. To be conservative is, by definition, to exclude yourself from participating in polite conversation. 

Conservatives in academia and journalism — in fact, most of the intellectual, symbol-manipulating, or credentialed professions — have thus been made to feel like veritable outlaws. Is it any wonder, then, that the standard-bearer of American conservatism for the past four years was a boorish, crass, megalomaniacal pirate? Trumpism is the form conservatism takes when, suppressed like a socially inappropriate emotion, it suddenly comes squirting out the sides. In an era of dramatically increasing thought control among intellectuals, it took a walking, gleeful faux-pas like Trump to express ideas that have broad popular support, but which the highly educated generally refuse to acknowledge: that open borders are probably a bad idea, that offshoring factory jobs enriched executives while robbing American workers, and that while America indeed needs to correct for its history of racial discrimination, it is not an inherently racist nation forever defined by its past sins. 

Yet because Trump is such a hateful figure to many if not most professionals in the sciences and academia, and because he genuinely does inflame political divisions, say racist and ugly things, and deliberately provoke experts and scientific advisors, the editors at Nature expected conservatives to give up their normal affiliation and line up behind the Democratic party.

This expectation, which is apparently sincere, reflects a very poor understanding of political psychology, and of people generally. For many, if the rude sexist guy in the corner is the only one who’ll admit that there’s a fire in the room, it doesn’t somehow mean that we must pretend that there’s no fire. It means that, distasteful as it might be, the rude sexist guy is right about there being a fire. Well, Trump is a rude, sexist pirate. But for many, many Americans, he was the only one willing to say there was a fire — that is, that the combination of neoliberal economic globalization and rapid leftward cultural movement wasn’t working for a lot of people.

Don’t Blow All Your Credibility in One Place

Unsurprisingly, then, despite the exhortations of Nature, Science, Scientific American, the New England Journal of Medicine, and other voices of scientific authority, many conservatives in the U.S. voted on Tuesday largely as they would have voted in any normal election, except that they had to risk invoking towering ire of the journalists, professionals, and academics to do so. (Interestingly, Trump’s support actually appears to have risen between 2016 and 2020 in every demographic category except white men.)

This result was ultimately because about half the people in any society, anywhere on earth, in all ethnicities or races, are liable to be conservative. That is not going to change, ever. Conservatives are here to stay. Using the authority of a publication like Nature to tilt against the windmills of  empirically demonstrated political facts is a wince-inducing irony, but it also exposes a deep crisis of scientific leadership and vision. Because if scientists torch their credibility with half the population today, we’ll all regret it tomorrow.

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