Should scientific journals publish political debunkings?
A dialogue (with myself)
Earlier this week, the “news and analysis” section of the journal Science (the second-most-prestigious scientific journal, after Nature) published something I found quite surprising. It was a point-by-point rebuttal of a monologue a few days earlier from the Fox News show Tucker Carlson Tonight, where the eponymous host excoriated Dr. Anthony Fauci, of “seen everywhere during the pandemic” fame.
Among many other unhinged accusations, Carlson’s 17-minute rant claimed Fauci had committed “very serious crimes”, had lied to promote COVID vaccines that don’t work, and had personally contributed to the creation of the virus in the first place. The Science piece noted that “[a]lmost everything Tucker Carlson said… was misleading or false”.
That’s completely correct - so why did I have misgivings about the Science piece? It’s the kind of thing you see all the time on dedicated political fact-checking sites - but I’d never before seen it in a scientific journal. I’m very much in favour of debunking misleading and false arguments. But is it a good thing that scientific journals are now publishing direct, detailed attacks on right-wing shock jocks?
I feel very conflicted on whether this is a sensible idea. And, instead of actually taking some time to think it through and work out a solid position, in true hand-wringing style I’m going to write down both sides of the argument in the form of a dialogue - with myself. Maybe I can end up by convincing myself one way or another, and you can weigh in, too (I’ll put a poll for subscribers at the end).
I’ll follow the convention from the excellent parallel-universe-themed sci-fi TV series Counterpart and call my two alternate selves “Alpha” and “Prime”:
Stuart Alpha, who is against journals getting political in any way, is in normal type.
Stuart Prime, who is more sympathetic to scientific journals publishing this kind of thing, is in italics.
Without further ado:
Stuart Alpha: Scientific journals should stay very far away from politics. I’ve already written about this - how science is political, but that’s a bad thing. Science does get political because we allow our biases to intrude on it, and it’s probably impossible to be 100% unbiased at all times. But we should try everything in our power to tie ourselves to the proverbial mast and resist allowing our political views to influence our choice of topics, our datasets, our results, and the way we communicate them.
So, when scientific journals start to engage in political debates—for instance, debates with a Fox News opinion host—they betray this ideal, and little good will come of it.
Stuart Prime: But something good did come of this: Tucker Carlson’s incorrect claims got debunked by an authoritative source. That’s good, because the claims he made were flagrantly incorrect. You do agree with that latter part, right?
SA: Yes, of course I agree his claims were incorrect - you’ll find we agree on a lot of stuff, because I am you. But the point is that this is a very prestigious scientific journal, and it loses some of its impartial authority if it starts getting into grubby political debates.
SP: Just a second. This wasn’t published in the peer-reviewed section of Science! This isn’t a refereed paper - it’s in the “News and Analysis” section. Wouldn’t you expect an “Analysis” article to, like, analyse things? Including statements made on Fox News?
SA: To be honest, sometimes I wonder why scientific journals have a “News and Analysis” section at all - or, I wonder if it’s healthy in the long run. In any case, clearly there’s a big “halo” effect from the peer-reviewed part: people take the News and Analysis more seriously because it’s attached to the very esteemed journal. People are sharing it on social media because it’s “the journal Science debunking Tucker Carlson” - way fewer people would care if it was just published on some random news site. I don’t think you can have it both ways by saying it’s actually nothing to do with Science the peer-reviewed journal.
SP: I was just saying they were separate, rather than entirely unrelated, but fair enough. My overall point still stands: it’s fine for journals to publish articles that are clearly demarcated as opinion, and that serve an important purpose - in this case to correct some wild Fox News misconceptions about a scientist (Fauci) and about the pandemic.
SA: Is it the job of a scientific journal to correct wild misconceptions from places like Fox News, though? Isn’t that a bit… low-rent, for a prestigious scientific journal?
SP: Scientific journals are about publishing accurate information that advances scientific knowledge. They’re also about communicating that scientific knowledge to scientists and to any of their other readers, which often includes the general public. Isn’t this an example of that?
SA: That sounds very high-minded. But look at the debunking article: at one point it takes what was an obvious joke (Carlson claims that Fauci said, of masks, “you’re getting too much life enhancing oxygen… be more like a tree”), and states that “Fauci never publicly uttered these supposed quotes”. Well, duh. Elsewhere it responds to one claim by saying one set of Carlson’s arguments “have been thoroughly debunked”, and linking to an NPR article - that’s it. It seems to me that there’s very little added value to this debunking - certainly not enough to outweigh the reputational risks.
SP: We can agree that there are specific deficiencies in this particular debunking. But I thought we were talking about the general principle. And you haven’t actually told me what you think these reputational risks are.
SA: It’s the same argument people made about the “March for Science” back in 2017. The risk is that, if “science” becomes something that’s seen as strongly associated with liberal politics and strongly opposed to conservative politicians (back then the march was very much anti-Donald Trump), it’s going to be that much harder to convince conservatives to take it seriously in future. Or, indeed, to convince future elected conservative politicians to act on it and fund it.
SP: Do you have any actual evidence for that?
SA: Well, it’s certainly true that, in the US, attitudes towards science have become dramatically polarised in the last couple of years (I haven’t seen the equivalent surveys from other countries). Republicans have really substantially lower—30 percentage points lower—confidence in science than Democrats in the 2021 General Social Survey.
SP: Surely you don’t think that’s because of scientific journals publishing more pieces on politics! How could that possibly have had an effect? It’s due to the pandemic, and all the debate and polarisation it generated. The journal articles are a consequence of that polarisation, not a cause.
SA: Regardless of what causes the polarisation, it’s not good that scientific journals are “leaning in” to it. When scientists see polarisation increasing like this, they should redouble their efforts to be seen as apolitical - not start publishing even more political stuff, “calling out” Fox News hosts and so on. The floodgates truly seem to be open to all manner of highly-political stuff in journals now, and the more it goes unremarked, the more common it’ll become. Even you would be worried if you woke up one day in a few years’ time and the whole news section in Science was full of partisan content like this (or even if they published something like this every week, or every month!). And don’t call me Shirley.
SP: Didn’t you just commit the “slippery slope fallacy”? The point is that the attack on Fauci by Carlson was extreme, and so Science went to an extreme by publishing this rebuttal. I don’t see how you have reason to think this kind of thing is going to become commonplace.
SA: Okay, I haven’t seen any actual analysis of this, so, pinch of salt. But it’s certainly my impression that there’s way more political content in journals—their news sections, their editorials—now than there was a few decades ago. Just look at the political endorsements (or as-good-as endorsements) in the 2020 US election as one example.
Institutions are important, and the institution of the unbiased, highly-trustworthy scientific journal serves an important role in society (even if you don’t like scientific journals, the idea that science itself is seen as disinterested is crucial). It’s a sad thing if that institution gets eroded by a completely unnecessary drip-drip of politicised content. Not only will this affect trust, but an environment with more political groupthink is one where political biases might affect the science itself.
There are precious few neutral sources nowadays, and scientific journals should strive to be one of them. If there’s the slightest doubt in their mind that something might be “too political” in their News/Views/Analysis sections, they shouldn’t publish it.
SP: Are you quite finished?
SA: Yes. Sorry. Your turn.
SP: Thanks. You just sound really complacent, or perhaps naïve. There’s an enormous attack on science, and on scientists like Fauci, by massively popular media figures on the right in the US (and to a lesser extent the UK). A lot of people—3 or 4 million every night—watch Tucker Carlson’s show. It’s maddening to any thinking person that he’s spreading such blatant untruths, night after night, to an audience of that size. You’re really advocating that scientific journals just sit back and don’t publish anything that stands up to this relentless assault? And by the way, that assault is (at least part of) the reason people lose trust in science in the first place.
SA: Do you really think the set of people who watch, or would be convinced by, Tucker Carlson are going to look at an article on the Science website and think “ah, right enough, this sounds reasonable”? Who’s being naïve, exactly?
SP: There are always waverers out there who it’s possible to convince, even if you can’t touch the hidebound anti-Fauci conspiracy nuts. It’s important to put the information out there.
SA: But that just brings me back to: does it have to be in Science? And here’s another thing: the convincing is always aimed at one side. It’s very hard to imagine one of these news pieces or editorials calling out dangerous excesses on the left, like the crazy view that countries should “degrow” their economies.
SP: Again, I’d need to see an actual analysis of that skew, rather than just your opinion. But if you’re correct and people on the right side of the political aisle wouldn’t read or care about editorials and analysis pieces in Science anyway, why does it even matter?
SA: Why does anything matter? It’s a really common move in these kinds of debates to just throw one’s hands up and accept the way things are going. “It’s over and done with, no matter what happens. Why do you even care? Do you have some kind of political agenda?” But I think both sides really should be concerned here.
SP: At least arguing about it passed the time.
SA: It would have passed in any case.
SP: Yes, but not so rapidly.
SA: Come on - take this seriously! Isn’t this a pretty tragic situation? Half the population of a country are totally turned off from scientific institutions - and the response of those scientific institutions is to give the right-wing populists even more ammunition by attacking them (in often quite lazy ways, as I mentioned above), when they should be rising above it all.
SP: Isn’t this exactly the kind of bias towards “second-order”, “counterintuitive” thinking you disparage in others? The simplest way of reading this is: “authoritative source debunks dangerous media propaganda”. In fact, even if it wasn’t dangerous, it’s still factually wrong, and that should be enough to make you favour it being debunked. You want to take a much more complex view: “the simple, first-order good of the debunking is outweighed by some nebulous, second-order effect on scientific trust”. I just don’t see any evidence for that!
SA: I think that, over the next few years, you will. But now we’re going round in circles, with no resolution. It’s like that play with the two guys - what’s it called again? Ah, never mind.
SP: Well? Shall we go?
SA: Yes, let’s go.
[They do not move.]
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