Michael Jordan famously declined to cross the line from athletics to politics, saying, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
Nature magazine is finding out that Republicans also consume scientific literature — but they are less likely to do so when they think the publication has turned political.
Research published this week in Nature Human Behaviour found that the vaunted publication’s endorsement of then-candidate Joseph R. Biden in the 2020 presidential race didn’t sway any minds toward Mr. Biden. Yet it did cost the journal credibility among supporters of Donald Trump.
Floyd Zhang, the Stanford University professor who conducted the research, used a group of more than 4,000 people. He showed half of them a summary of Nature’s October 2020 endorsement of Mr. Biden. He provided a “placebo” message to the other half.
He found no increase in support for Mr. Biden based on Nature’s opinion, but he found that Trump supporters in the group who had been shown the endorsement were significantly less likely than the placebo group to want to see Nature’s work on coronavirus variants and vaccine effectiveness.
Nature said the study, though limited to one election and one journal, raised big questions about scientific credibility and the taint of politics.
“This is an important question, and there are, sadly, no easy answers,” the publication’s editors wrote. “The study shows the potential costs of making an endorsement. But inaction has costs, too.”
In the end, Nature’s editors vowed not to cave to pressure for the sake of their credibility. They said they owed it to themselves to say what they believe.
“Political endorsements might not always win hearts and minds, but when candidates threaten a retreat from reason, science must speak out,” Nature said in an editorial on the matter.
Crossing lanes into politics has long been a minefield.
Professional athletes who stray into activism are often told to keep it off the field. Actors are derided for claiming expertise on political matters.
Author J.K. Rowling has faced blistering attacks for expressing a view that transgender rights crusades impinge on women’s rights.
When the Hispanic CEO of Goya Foods praised Mr. Trump in 2020, calls for a boycott spread online. Researchers at Cornell University found that the company’s sales rose, however, as previous customers remained loyal and Republicans rushed out to make purchases to show their support.
Nature, however, saw a reverse effect on Mr. Trump.
Mr. Zhang found an overall lower level of trust in American scientists among the Trump backers exposed to Nature’s opinion piece.
“This suggests that these changes in trust have behavioral impacts,” Mr. Zhang wrote in a series of online posts about his work. “The endorsement creates spillover/externality on the scientific community.”
If Mr. Zhang’s data is correct, then Nature’s position is a defense of virtue signaling. The reason to endorse is not to sway minds but to go on record to prove to friends and colleagues where you stood when the lines were drawn.
There may also be a bit of I-told-you-so involved in being able to point back years later.
Holden Thorp, editor-in-chief of Science magazine, defended Nature’s take.
He said telling scientists to stick to science “infantilizes scientists.” He said it was like being told to sit at the kids’ table while the adults decided matters.
“We must fight back,” Mr. Thorp said in an online posting.
He said those who told Mr. Zhang that they lost faith in Nature “don’t actually want science, they want scientific information they can use as they see fit.”
“This gives people the permission to say things like ‘climate change may be real, but I don’t think we should have government regulation to deal with it,’ which is unacceptable. We can’t concede that by letting people pick and choose,” Mr. Thorp said.
Dr. Vinay Prasad, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, fired back by saying that as a scientist and a liberal, it was “off-putting to see the editors of top journals so nakedly partisan.”
“Stick to publishing good papers,” he wrote on Substack.
Nature said its 2020 editorial, though rare, wasn’t its first endorsement, and it apparently won’t be the last.
The publication faulted Mr. Trump on matters such as his plans for human spaceflight, his approach to the COVID-19 pandemic, his travel ban policy and his “America first” handling of foreign relations.
“When individuals seeking office have a track record of causing harm, when they are transparently dismissive of facts and integrity, when they threaten scholarly autonomy, and when they are disdainful of cooperation and consensus, it becomes important to speak up,” Nature said in its editorial this week.
“We use our voice sparingly and always offer evidence to back up what we say. And, when the occasion demands it, we will continue to do so.”
Mr. Zhang said Nature’s argument that “inaction has costs, too” is wrong — at least as far as his data shows.
“A bad situation is not ‘costs’ of someone’s inaction unless their action can materially change the situation for the better, which is exactly what the study suggests to be not the case,” he said.
• Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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