Intellectuals and accountability: Should scientists sway public opinion on politics?

Zhang Tiankan chastises renowned journals The Lancet, The New England Journal of Medicine, Science and Nature, for veering off their professional domains and making prescriptive statements about which US presidential candidate to vote for. Such behaviour is irresponsible and unbecoming, to say the least. He asks: Shouldn't intellectuals be accountable for their views and positions?
A sign encouraging voter turnout is seen at a campaign yard sign distribution site in Madison, Wisconsin, US, 17 October 2020. (Bing Guan/File Photo/Reuters)
A sign encouraging voter turnout is seen at a campaign yard sign distribution site in Madison, Wisconsin, US, 17 October 2020. (Bing Guan/File Photo/Reuters)

The world is counting down to the 2020 US presidential election. The electoral race has not only intensified, but thrown up a few peculiar or even befuddling phenomena. 

For one, various authoritative scientific journals around the world have publicly declared their support for one candidate — former Vice President and Democrat Joe Biden — with editorials that attack and belittle incumbent Republican President Donald Trump. They have also been appealing to voters to vote for Biden.     

These scientific journals include The Lancet, The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), Science and Nature. The former two are world-leading medical journals, while the latter two are comprehensive and multidisciplinary scientific journals that are held in high regard and exert a great influence on the world. Undoubtedly, the journals' endorsement increases Biden's and decreases Trump's chances of winning.    

...if science does not make an impact on politics by relying on facts, evidence, and the findings of scientific research, but instead uses the might of certain scientists, experts or intellectuals to influence the outcome, this is doing more harm than good.

US Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden delivers remarks at a Voter Mobilisation Event campaign stop at the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal in Cincinnati, Ohio, US, 12 October 2020. (Tom Brenner/File Photo/Reuters)
US Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden delivers remarks at a Voter Mobilisation Event campaign stop at the Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal in Cincinnati, Ohio, US, 12 October 2020. (Tom Brenner/File Photo/Reuters)

However, regardless of whether the efforts of these scientific journals will pay off in the elections, the scientific world has become deeply embroiled in politics. It is difficult to evaluate if this is more of a boon or a bane to society. But one thing is certain: if science does not make an impact on politics by relying on facts, evidence, and the findings of scientific research, but instead uses the might of certain scientists, experts or intellectuals to influence the outcome, this is doing more harm than good.

Scientists no longer neutral

Whether or not the outcome of the US election goes according to the journals’ will, it will not be a rosy picture. If Biden is elected, the fact remains that the scientific journals and the scientific community have interfered in politics. Moreover, once Biden takes office, if he performs badly or even worse than Trump in governing the country, including in how he handles the pandemic, the scientific journals’ credibility would be called into question as they had thrown their weight behind Biden. Those who voted for Biden at their behest may also feel betrayed.

On the other hand, if Trump is re-elected, it would be an even greater slap in the face for the four scientific journals, because the American people would have disproved their stance based on their own experience and knowledge of reality. They would have acknowledged Trump’s political achievements and stated that they are willing to let him lead the country for another four years.  

Editor-in-chief of the NEJM Eric Rubin said that throughout the journal’s 208-year history, this editorial supporting Biden was one of only four in the journal's history that was signed by all of the editors.

Scientific community slighted by Trump’s approach to the pandemic 

Why did the four major journals go against the decade- or even century-old tradition of not interfering deeply in politics? Editor-in-chief of the NEJM Eric Rubin said that throughout the journal’s 208-year history, this editorial supporting Biden was one of only four in the journal's history that was signed by all of the editors. This is also the first editorial on politics and elections. Furthermore, while the four journals gave different reasons for publishing these editorials, the main reason was that the Trump administration had mishandled the pandemic, which ravaged the US and caused the most number of Covid-19 deaths worldwide.    

The New England Journal of Medicine Editor Eric Rubin. (Internet)
Editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, Eric Rubin. (Internet)

More detailed reasons can be found in the editorials of the NEJM and Nature. The NEJM said that while the US has a tremendous manufacturing capacity and a biomedical research system “that is the envy of the world”, “our leaders have largely chosen to ignore and even denigrate experts”. It added, “We were incapable of testing effectively and couldn’t provide even the most basic personal protective equipment to health care workers and the general public… And in much of the country, people simply don’t wear masks, largely because our leaders have stated outright that masks are political tools rather than effective infection control measures.”   

Said the Nature editorial: “No US president in recent history has so relentlessly attacked and undermined so many valuable institutions… picked fights with the country’s long-standing friends and allies, and walked away from crucial international scientific and environmental agreements and organisations… and even, unthinkable in the middle of a pandemic, the World Health Organization (WHO).

“Trump’s efforts to close borders, limit immigration and discourage international scientific cooperation — especially with researchers from China — are precisely the opposite of what is needed if the world is to succeed in tackling the mounting global challenges before us.

“Trump has not grown into his position as president, and has demonstrated that he can neither lead nor unite the United States. Joe Biden, by contrast, has a history in the Senate as a politician… [and] shown that he respects the values of research, and has vowed to work to restore the United States’ fractured global relationships.” 

The editorial ended off by stating that it was for these reasons that Nature was endorsing Biden and urging voters to vote for him on 3 November. 

US President Donald Trump holds a campaign rally in Gastonia, North Carolina, US, 21 October 2020. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)
US President Donald Trump holds a campaign rally in Gastonia, North Carolina, US, 21 October 2020. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

Objectively speaking, Trump administration may not have gone so wrong

If the allegations against Trump are true, then the Trump administration should not just be abandoned by the voters but be pronounced guilty of committing heinous acts. But the truth is, the Trump administration did not act in the manner described by the four journals. It is unfair to say that the Trump administration failed to follow scientific rules and principles in pandemic prevention and control.    

In terms of controlling the source of infection, the Trump administration declared a travel ban on 31 January, banning the entry of foreign visitors who had visited China in the last 14 days. This order took effect on 2 February. However, it did not apply these rules to overseas US citizens and permanent residents because the country wanted to bring its citizens home. At the very least, this shows that the Trump administration did indeed take measures to stop the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus. 

Next, mask-wearing — a small yet concrete step to take in pandemic control. The four journals consider this Trump’s “original sin”. To them, an important reason why the pandemic has become uncontrollable in the US is that Trump did not adopt what was thought to be the scientific and commonsensical approach, that is he did not accept that one should wear a mask, or make it compulsory to do so.

...science has not given a clear answer as to whether there is a need to wear masks or if they are effective. Ongoing research is still being done and different conclusions have been drawn.

Pedestrians wearing protective masks pass in front of the Fargo Theatre in downtown Fargo, North Dakota, US, on 14 October 2020. (Dan Koeck/Bloomberg)
Pedestrians wearing protective masks pass in front of the Fargo Theatre in downtown Fargo, North Dakota, US, on 14 October 2020. (Dan Koeck/Bloomberg)

The fact is that science has not given a clear answer as to whether there is a need to wear masks or if they are effective. Ongoing research is still being done and different conclusions have been drawn. On 30 March, WHO Health Emergencies Programme Executive Director Mike Ryan said, “There is no specific evidence to suggest that wearing masks by the mass population has any potential benefit.” In fact, he said that there was some evidence “to suggest the opposite, in the misuse of wearing a mask properly or fitting it properly”. The ambiguity of expert opinion and scientific evidence does influence government policies — the Trump administration is no exception.

Even scientific conclusions keep changing, in the face of a pandemic

Going a step further, in the face of an unprecedented pandemic, while pandemic control relies upon scientific truths and evidence, science is only able to gain a superficial knowledge about the pandemic and apply it to other areas by extrapolation. Evidence and justifications in the early stages are often overthrown and falsified by future research, thus resulting in an inconsistent pandemic control approach. This not only applies to the pandemic but is also true in life, work, and all throughout history.   

The exploration of drug treatment options for Covid-19 is a classic example of the point above. The use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine in treating Covid-19 went from being discovered to being approved of, then disproved, and later approved of again. In the end, hydroxychloroquine was dropped from WHO’s Solidarity clinical trial initially comparing four treatments — remdesivir, lopinavir/ritonavir, interferon, and hydroxychloroquine — against the Covid-19 coronavirus. (NB: in the 15 October interim results reported by WHO, all four treatments have been found to be ineffective.) 

At the same time, a government’s policy and guidelines on the pandemic are not based solely on scientific evidence but balanced with various aspects such as society, culture, way of life, economic growth and so on.

A projection on a building plays with the words "hydroxychloroquine" and "lie" as a protest against Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a fervent advocate of the drug, during a tribute honouring the 100,000 victims who died of the Covid-19 coronavirus in Brazil, in Botafogo neighbourhood in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on 8 August 2020. (Mauro Pimentel/AFP)
A projection on a building plays with the words "hydroxychloroquine" and "lie" as a protest against Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a fervent advocate of the drug, during a tribute honouring the 100,000 victims who died of the Covid-19 coronavirus in Brazil, in Botafogo neighbourhood in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on 8 August 2020. (Mauro Pimentel/AFP)

However, regardless of whether it was Trump, the WHO, and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who had recommended certain treatments based on the research outcomes of countries across the world, the result was still disastrous. This is not due to the government or medical departments’ mishandling of the pandemic but because scientific knowledge is still not up to standard yet.   

At the same time, a government’s policy and guidelines on the pandemic are not based solely on scientific evidence but balanced with various aspects such as society, culture, way of life, economic growth and so on. Thus, it is expected that the US, European countries, and others would have different approaches to lockdowns, quarantines, mask-wearing and other measures. One cannot simply blame the absence of these measures on the government’s ineffective fight against the pandemic, or blame a certain government for the large numbers of Covid-19 deaths.

Scientific community not held accountable for their endorsement

The worst thing is, the four journals’ need not be held accountable for their interference in politics and their calls for people to support one candidate and oppose another. The editors of these scientific journals think that since they represent science, rationality, and truth, they are thus incarnations of god and have every right to determine the next leader and urge people to vote according to their wishes. 

...intellectuals are not held accountable for the huge negative impacts caused by their ideas, even if it involves the deaths of millions — the more influential the intellectual, the more this is so. - Thomas Sowell, Intellectuals and Society

This is false, as even though everyone working at the scientific journals are professionals, they are not the bastions of science and truth as they are only experts in a single field. In fact, they are only capable of judging if an article is fit to be published in their respective journals. Keep in mind that this judgement is also performed by other experts, that is, the reviewers.  

In his book Intellectuals and Society, Thomas Sowell said that intellectuals are not held accountable for the huge negative impacts caused by their ideas, even if it involves the deaths of millions — the more influential the intellectual, the more this is so. This is the case with the four major journals now. They too, think that they have mastered science, and are thus more intelligent than the average joe and are above the limitations of capability and reason. Yet, they have forgotten that they are just individuals and the same as everybody else — they have cognitive limitations too.  

As soon as one goes beyond the scope of one’s profession, one immediately turns into a primary school student again. Thus, when intellectuals participate in public discussions, they are no different from the laymen. In fact, they may be even worse than the layman who has gained more wisdom through practical life experiences and who knows better about making the right decisions and choosing the right person. This is more so when it comes to democratic elections.

Bertrand Russell (left) and Martin Heidegger. (Internet)
Intellectuals Bertrand Russell (left) and Martin Heidegger. (Internet)

History has already proven this. In the 1930s of the 20th century, famed British scientist and philosopher Bertrand Russell proposed that the UK should unilaterally disarm for the sake of peace in the face of a Nazi Germany that was expanding its military and preparing for war. This led to a wave of policy of appeasement in the UK and also resulted in the catastrophic defeats of the UK and other countries in the early stages of the subsequent war.     

Also in the same period, German philosopher Martin Heidegger spared no effort in defending the Nazis and providing a theoretical basis for racism. This led to the Holocaust, which saw the mass murder of millions of Jews. Yet, Heidegger was not held accountable for this terrible disaster. After the end of World War II, he continued to teach at universities and publish books, and enjoyed worldwide recognition.   

The best practice for handling public issues and political behaviour, as well as the best way to prevent professional organisations from falling into their own cognitive blind spots, is to allow people to judge and choose for themselves the next president or leader based on their own experiences, knowledge, and everyday lives.

People dine in plastic tents for social distancing at a restaurant in Manhattan on 15 October 2020 in New York City, amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Angela Weiss/AFP)
People dine in plastic tents for social distancing at a restaurant in Manhattan on 15 October 2020 in New York City, amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Angela Weiss/AFP)

The four major journals should learn from the WHO’s attitude towards public affairs. The WHO is very clear that it is impossible for every policy and practice to be right based on the limitations of scientific and human knowledge. In response to the question about whether Trump’s “disregard” for mask-wearing would lead to him inevitably contracting Covid-19, Ryan replied that the organisation does not comment on the risk management measures or behaviour of any individual.

The best practice for handling public issues and political behaviour, as well as the best way to prevent professional organisations from falling into their own cognitive blind spots, is to allow people to judge and choose for themselves the next president or leader based on their own experiences, knowledge, and everyday lives.

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