In April 2017, just a few months into the Trump administration, hundreds of thousands of people took part in a “March for Science” in Washington, DC, and in cities all around the world. Some worried at the time that the nominally nonpartisan event was too political and would damage the credibility of institutional science. Others argued that its activism should have been far more overt. Now, three and a half years later, it appears this tension has been resolved. In the past few weeks, some of the most prestigious scientific and medical journals—including Nature, Science, and The New England Journal of Medicine—have issued editorials that more or less denounce President Donald Trump and endorse Joe Biden in the upcoming election. Journalists and social media pundits have reacted to the trend with varying degrees of admiration or apprehension, but nearly always with surprise that a long-hallowed split between science and politics has finally evaporated.
The notion that this split can and must exist—and that scientific journals are important for enforcing it—is largely a fiction. It's also one of relatively recent vintage. The conceit that the scientific literature can be a bastion of objectivity, and that it can keep scientific truth in quarantine from politics, is neither permanent nor realistic; and if it's gone into decline, perhaps that's for the best.
There is indeed a long-standing idea—once championed by serious historians—that the relationship between science and states is normally constrained so as to keep the two at a respectable distance. According to the terms of that arrangement, scientists produce knowledge that can be turned into practical value through technologies and rational policies, and in return they receive institutional support and funding from the state to do that work. Some might now argue that, as this arms-length but mutually beneficial pact has broken down, representatives of the American scientific community have been compelled to enter the unfamiliar arena of politics. But this isn’t quite right.
The thing is, modern nations have often used their patronage of science to shore up their own political legitimacy. The enlightened absolutism of prerevolutionary France, for example, was meant to harness the practical benefits of science—producing instruments of war, improvements in agriculture, and controlling epidemics, for example—but also its ideological potential, by recasting matters of governance as problems that could be solved by science. (The yoking of science to the monarchy was one reason that the Paris Academy of Sciences was shut down as politically suspect after the revolution.) During the 20th century this relationship was again in full view, in the public role given to science—especially the Indian nuclear program—by Jawaharlal Nehru in his efforts to forge Indian independence. Science was also central to American cultural diplomacy during the Cold War, as scientific ambassadors from the US trumpeted the benefits of "scientific freedom." As historian Audra Wolfe has recently shown, these actors could be politically engaged—even critical of US policy—and still support American strategic objectives in the global fight against Communism.
Ironically, that very Cold War ideal of scientific freedom is in part to blame for the pesky idea that science must be insulated from politics. And the international system of scientific journals—including Science, Nature and The New England Journal of Medicine, among many others— came to play an outsize role in this Cold War vision, as the appointed guardians of independent truth.
It was not always so. In earlier times it was common for periodicals, including those that focused on science or medicine, to be identified with some political orientation. Just as many news sites today remain known for a political stance even as they endeavor to adhere to journalistic standards, it was not uncommon in the 19th century for scientific journals to cultivate partisan reputations. Extreme instances can be found in post-revolutionary France, where editors of publications such as the Journal de physique (founded 1785) and the Annales des sciences d'observation (founded 1829) made little effort to hide their activist political commitments. In England, meanwhile, The Lancet (founded 1823) was one among many publications that blended political and social advocacy with science and medicine. Even the French Academy of Sciences’ weekly journal of short research notes, the Comptes rendus hebdomadaires (founded 1835), which established the blueprint for prestigious journals from Nature to Physical Review Letters, was created by the astronomer (and sitting parliamentarian) François Arago in response to bitter partisan conflict over press freedoms and access to the academy’s meetings.
But as journals that focused on original scientific research gradually came to be seen as a genre apart from the broader periodical press, such explicit political positioning became less frequent. That didn’t stop editors from engaging in political advocacy, especially at times of heightened political tensions. Nature itself, under its first editor, Norman Lockyer, did not shy away from editorializing even if Lockyer usually avoided the appearance of outright partisanship. Nature would serve as a key venue for nationalistic denunciations of Germany by British scientists on the eve of World War I, and it published countless pieces about the dangerous rise of totalitarianism and its disastrous effects on German science in the 1930s. (US presidential politics have also been addressed in recent years, with Nature’s editors endorsing the Democratic candidate in the past four contests.)
By mid-century, the system of journals was beginning to take on particular ideological importance. In 1948, the Irish crystallographer and devoted communist J. D. Bernal put forward a plan to abolish the notoriously chaotic system of journals and replace it with a more efficient central clearing house of scientific information. The seemingly technocratic proposal generated headlines such as “Truth in Danger” in the Economist and comparisons to Nazi scientific control in The Times. For those dedicated to “scientific freedom,” it was precisely the decentralized and essentially unregulated universe of journals that allowed the marketplace of ideas to churn out truth.
As postwar science in the United States became increasingly dependent on government funding, the journal system became a crucial mediator between two ideas. On one hand, scientists had to be free to pursue their own hunches; on the other, they were supposed to serve a public that paid their rather expensive bills. In 1972, the American physicist Alvin Weinberg (popularizer of the term “Big Science”) explained that there are two kinds of scientific deliberation, each with its own processes and constituencies. In the first, “scientific truth is established by the traditional methods of peer review,” and “the public is excluded from participation.” The second, which he called “trans-science,” involved matters of public concern and risk; it was more about wisdom than truth, and it depended as much on political skill and public deliberation.
When Weinberg invoked “peer review,” he was actually referring to all manner of internal and often informal modes of criticism practiced by researchers—not just the process of getting research into print, but also everyday conversations over the phone or by letter, conference chatter, choices about whose work to follow up on and whose to ignore, and even what claims end up in reference works and textbooks. But gradually “peer review” came to be understood as the very particular set of formalized processes connected with journals, and over which scientific editors were supposed to exercise complete control. You can see this process of concentration happen over the course of a series of government hearings during the 1980s, in which elected officials interrogated representatives of science over research integrity and the spectre of fraud. By the 1990s, the “peer-reviewed journal” had emerged as a principal bulwark against political influence and corruption in Weinberg’s inner sphere of scientific truth.
But this supposed separation of scientific truth from political wisdom has proven delicate, and it has put unrealistic pressure on journals and their editors to maintain a boundary that has never really held. Nowhere has this been more evident over the past 20 years than in the field of climate science, where researchers are keenly aware that scientific truth and political wisdom cannot be pulled apart. The Climategate email leaks of 2009, in which the rather messy exchanges between editors about what to include and exclude were put on full display, shows what can happen when this naive vision meets the everyday reality of managing a scientific journal in the midst of partisan conflict. It is not surprising that climate scientists are more savvy than most of their colleagues, and they have been quicker to take up public partisan positions in recent years.
Today, what has always been a rather thin veneer of political neutrality is being washed away by political exigencies. There is almost nothing unprecedented about this, as long as we take a wide enough view. Representatives of science have always been willing and eager to make statements—simultaneously political and scientific—about matters of grave public concern, especially when their standards of evidence (historically a moving target, yes, but just as essential for that) are called into question or increasingly ignored and even ridiculed by public figures. Covid-19 has helped to accelerate a process in which the journal system as we know it may be completely transformed. If any good can come out of the current attack on facts and reasoned judgment being pursued by the current American administration, perhaps we can finally put aside this fiction that the pursuit of scientific truth can be kept separate from political wisdom.
Photographs: Max Herman/Getty Images; Caitlin O'Hara/Getty Images