The Journal Gazette
Tuesday, October 20, 2020 1:00 am

Scientific consensus

Journals united in unprecedented rejection of Trump

Christer Watson

Regular readers will not be surprised by my opinions on the upcoming presidential election. In this last piece before the election, I want to draw everyone's attention to another set of opinions.

Four science journals have recently taken unprecedented positions by editorializing against Donald Trump. The journals are the most mainstream journals in the country: the New England Journal of Medicine, Nature, Scientific American and Science.

It is hard to convey how much these journals are typically not interested in national, partisan politics. The publishers are well aware that both Democrats and Republicans have, in the past, supported scientific research and ignored scientific advice.

The New England Journal of Medicine is among the most respected journals in the world publishing original medical research; it has been publishing for 208 years. That is longer than we have accepted that germs cause disease.

Scientific American has been publishing for 175 years and has published works by more than 200 Nobel Prize winners. Nature and Science are the two most prestigious general science journals, publishing the best original science research in the world.

None of these journals has ever endorsed a presidential candidate.

Typical article titles are “The cellular basis of distinct thirst modalities” (Nature), “Life Expectancy after Bariatric Surgery” (New England Journal) or “Coherently forming a single molecule in an optical trap” (Science). Their goal is to publish new scientific discoveries.

They are not generally interested in politics. That is not their business model.

For broadly similar reasons, the journals broke with their traditions and editorialized against Trump for president. For example, the Journal clearly explained how the pandemic has been handled terribly. Americans have suffered far more from this disease than people in other countries, both rich and poor.

That suffering, they argue, is largely because we have failed at every step to deal with the disease.

Testing is still below needed levels, as measured by the number of tests per infected person. Social distancing rules were poorly coordinated and weakly enforced. Mask wearing is widely ignored because it was made a sign of political affiliation.

Nature, being a more general science journal, widens its argument. It mentions that COVID-19, global warming and nuclear weapons proliferation are all global problems. Their solutions require global cooperation. Nature describes how the Trump administration has undermined international agreements or organizations related to each of these issues.

It also describes how the federal response to the virus was taken away from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is filled with actual doctors and other scientists, and given to a task force led by Jared Kushner and Vice President Mike Pence. Neither has significant scientific expertise.

This move has become common, to shift decision-making on technical problems away from experts and to close political allies. The Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration provide unfortunate examples.

In the case of the pandemic, Nature argued that the administration's distrust of scientific expertise has been fatal.

The editor in chief of Science has specifically called out the early lies of Trump regarding the pandemic. He described the now well-known interviews in January between Bob Woodward and Trump in which Trump clearly understands the dangers of the virus in private, but then denies those dangers in public.

Those lies about the fundamental science of the disease put Americans' lives at immediate risk. They helped spread the disease more widely.

This is not a typical election. These editorials are not typical positions.

Scientific American and the New England Journal of Medicine were published when Franklin Roosevelt was president, when Abraham Lincoln was president. And this year marks the two journals' first presidential endorsements.

The reason is best summarized by the New England Journal: “...truth is neither liberal nor conservative. When it comes to the response to the largest public health crisis of our time, our current political leaders have demonstrated that they are dangerously incompetent.”


Christer Watson, of Fort Wayne, is a visiting assistant professor of physics at Purdue University Fort Wayne. Opinions expressed are his own. He wrote this for The Journal Gazette, where his columns normally appear the first and third Tuesday of each month.

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