Nature Keeps its Endorsement Between Scylla and Charybdis; SEED Should Take Notes

October 31st, 2008

Posted by: admin

Per a request from the comments on my post criticizing SEED’s presidential endorsement, I have read the Nature endorsement from the 30 October issue.  For a scientific journal like Nature, offering an endorsement is perhaps a riskier effort than it is for a broader interest science magazine.  A scientific journal’s stock in trade is the research it prints and the rigor of the review process that controls what goes in its pages.  If a journal has something to say editorially, it usually limits itself to topics within its field.  An editorial that strays into partisan arguments risks a journal’s reputation as an arbiter of high-quality research.  That Nature felt the risk worth taking is notable.  That it did so in a much more explicit, and more transparent fashion is encouraging.  The endorsement is an example I would recommend to any and all organizations trying to be politically engaged and maintain the rigor, empiricism and other processes that science aspires to.

There is a lot in this endorsement that recognizes what SEED chooses to ignore or hide – that encouraging scientific thinking and science and technology advice in politics and policy is a value choice.  This is clear from the lede:

“The values of scientific enquiry, rather than any particular policy positions on science, suggest a preference for one US presidential candidate over the other.”

(The bold is Nature’s)

SEED spoke of policy positions and scientific enquiry, suggesting that their preference was due to clear advantages on both points.  Nature disagrees, making an important point in the process.

“There is no open-and-shut case for preferring one man or the other on the basis of their views on these matters. This is as it should be: for science to be a narrow sectional interest bundled up in a single party would be a terrible thing. Both sides recognize science’s inspirational value and ability to help achieve national and global goals. That is common ground to be prized…”

(This time the bold is mine)

While the “Republican War on Science” rhetoric managed to rouse a lot of rabble and introduce many to the notion that scientists and engineers can be politically engaged, it made it really easy to pigeonhole science as a Democratic issue.  This is a terrible thing, a funhouse mirror twisting of political reality, and the political equivalent of shooting oneself in both feet.

Read the Nature endorsement again.  Notice who’s not mentioned?  SEED made it’s endorsement as much about the past as the future – for no reason other than to advance a well-worn (out) talking point that is much more effective at rallying the scientific base than appealing to the a policymaking center.  Nature made a point of acknowledging where both candidates have done well and not so well were scientifically informed policy is concerned.  They played to the center, moved beyond the base, and produced a much more reasonable – and hopefully effective – document as a result.

Ultimately, Nature made its choice based on values, values that place science as a useful and effective way to inform – not replace – decision making in politics and policy.  Nature recognized that non-scientific factors relate to political choices and value the candidate that, in their view, would take the broadest range of advice and evidence into consideration, and make decisions with that in mind.  I’ll close by quoting from the end of Nature’s endorsement, which bears repeating.

“The Oval Office is not a debating chamber, nor is it a faculty club. As anyone in academia will know, a thoughtful and professorial air is not in itself a recommendation for executive power. But a commitment to seeking good advice and taking seriously the findings of disinterested enquiry seems an attractive attribute for a chief executive. It certainly matters more than any specific pledge to fund some particular agency or initiative at a certain level — pledges of a sort now largely rendered moot by the unpredictable flux of the economy.

This journal does not have a vote, and does not claim any particular standing from which to instruct those who do.”

Neither does SEED.  Pity they didn’t recognize that.

13 Responses to “Nature Keeps its Endorsement Between Scylla and Charybdis; SEED Should Take Notes”

  1. stan Says:

    In a world where actions speak louder than words, it would have been nice for the editors and Nature and SEED to actually look at the only executive experience Obama has — his spending of $150 million on “education” as head of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge. Rather than spend it to improve education, he gave the money to radical groups seeking to inject left-wing, revolutionary politics into the schools. The Annenberg review of the spending demonstrated that it was a complete waste as far as improving educational outcomes. Wouldn’t have been nice if some of it had been directed at math and science instead?

    And we are supposed to believe that Republicans politicize science?

    How any honest, sentient being can observe:

    – Al Gore and Jim Hansen and the rest of the global warming hysterics,
    – the abandonment of standards to push the 2d hand smoke canard,
    – the falsehoods surrounding DDT leading to the unnecessary deaths and disease of millions,
    – and the horrifying politicization of education funding by Obama and his radical friends

    and then conclude that Republicans are the ones politicizing science is certainly a puzzle. I suspect that willful ignorance and stupidity are responsible for much of it.

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  3. Mark Bahner Says:

    “This journal does not have a vote, and does not claim any particular standing from which to instruct those who do.”

    “Neither does SEED. Pity they didn’t recognize that.”

    It’s a pity Nature apparently never read the sage advice of Ann Landers: MYOB.

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  5. docpine Says:

    To me, a false note in all this is Nature’s take on Sarah Palin.
    “Either as a result of poor advice, or of advice inadequately considered, he frequently makes decisions that seem capricious or erratic. The **most notable of these** is his ill-considered choice of Sarah Palin, the Republican governor of Alaska, as running mate. Palin lacks the experience, and any outward sign of the capacity, to face the rigours of the presidency.”

    Wow.. is that a scientific judgement? Of all the bad decisions (n=?) McCain might have made.. the *most notable* is picking Sarah Palin? “Notability” seems kind a vague kind of measure for a science journal. Plus these folks are mostly not American, so might not be familiar with various aspects of what a governor does.

    As for me, I will be voting on the basis of recommendations from the Brazilian Journal of Chemical Engineering. I just hope they weigh in :)

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  7. David Bruggeman Says:

    Nature was taking pains to make the point that their endorsement was value based, so it undercuts that point if any of their arguments were intended to be scientific judgments.

    The endorsement wouldn’t pass muster as a regular article, or even as a brief note. It’s not intended to.

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  9. docpine Says:

    One might ask then, if their endorsement was value based, why should we care? And for the print version, was their opportunity to share their opinion worth the ink and trees (I’m sure some greenhouse gases were involved) to produce it?

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  11. David Bruggeman Says:

    Presumably, Nature wanted to convince its readership that the value choices it was making – to support “The values of scientific enquiry, rather than any particular policy positions on science” – were consistent with what is collectively considered as good for its community.

    If a reader disagrees with the value choice, that’s one reason to discount the endorsement. If a reader thinks the value choice isn’t good for the community, that’s a second reason. If a reader doesn’t think a scientific journal has any business making value choices, that’s another reason. The last reason, however, presumes that scientific endeavors (even journals) are value free. That presumption has no basis in reality.

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  13. Sylvain Says:

    Their are value based decision any time a scientific journal or any journal decide to print or not a paper.

    If the review board of a journal like the conclusion of a paper, it is more likely to be printed than if the journal doesn’t like the conclusion. And it doesn’t matter how scientifically sound a paper is.

    Any journal can find many reason to print or not a paper.

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  15. David Solan Says:

    David—This endorsement says most about the politics of the editors. They’ve said goodbye to the slippery slope and landed in the gully. Can we expect the editors to weigh in on each election now? A proper editorial would have addressed challenges re: science policy and possibly executive organization going forward without picking a candidate, especially since they can’t justify based on acknowledged positions.

    The lede can be viewed a different way which is pernicious – “The values of scientific enquiry, rather than any particular policy positions on science, suggest a preference for one US presidential candidate over the other.” Or put another way, because we don’t have a basis for choosing one candidate over another based on positions, we will come up with an arbitrary basis to affirm our choice.

    What do the editors come up with? Capriciousness, Sarah Palin, “seeking a range of opinion,” etc. If the editors would have pointed to some McCain statements that demonstrated a lack of respect for research or a range of opinion—autism and vaccines maybe—that would have been valid. I didn’t know Nature is a good judge of pragmatism in health care either – straying a bit maybe?

    Sorry but executive decisionmaking and presidential leadership is a subdiscipline in scholarship, which is probably a surprise to the editors. Once again we see scientists jumping into waters they think are an inch deep and instead are in over their heads. The editors should have stuck to their expertise and field.

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  17. David Bruggeman Says:

    Some questions, David (or anyone else)

    Do you prefer the rationale behind the SEED endorsement – policy choices – better? Why or why not? They justified based on established positions, Nature asserts that to be a risky maneuver for science, since it threatens to make science a narrow interest of a particular party.

    Who should make the – apparently strictly academic – judgment about executive decisionmaking and presidential leadership? That assertion you make in the last paragraph would be a surprise to the vast majority of people, myself included. Were it an accurate reflection of reality, The American Political Science Association would get a lot more attention than it currently does.

    What about the Nature decision is arbitrary? They explained their rationale. Claiming it arbitrary because you disagree with their rationale is disingenuous. Do you think scientific enquiry is value-less?

    Values are part of these decisions – always. That Nature was explicit about it (certainly more explicit than SEED) should be encouraged.

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  19. David Solan Says:

    David—My point about executive decisionmaking scholarship is not that its practitioners should have a monopoly on opinions about it, hardly! My point is the further Nature’s editors move away from their own expertise to justify their position, the more they are delving into areas in which their opinions can be easily dismissed—as would many who’ve taken an undergraduate political science class on the presidency, nevermind anyone who actually works directly in the field or have passing knowledge of administrations since the Carter years.

    And if we can agree that I just disagree with the editors in their value judgment, then I ask again, why would the editors of a science journal make an endorsement based on a non-field judgment? Sorry “values of scientific enquiry” doesn’t cut it; their argument comes down to executive decisionmaking.

    Personally, I’d prefer science journals to stick to their purpose and editorialize about science and particular fields.

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  21. David Solan Says:

    David, you said, “What about the Nature decision is arbitrary? They explained their rationale. Claiming it arbitrary because you disagree with their rationale is disingenuous.” I do disagree with their rationale for the reasons I stated.

    But for the sake of your question, let’s see about their same rationale applied differently – anything can fit the “values of scientific enquiry” both positive and negative. My point in this post is this – their rationale as they have applied it is weak. My overall point is that journal editors should not stray from their expertise and the purpose of the journal.

    So let’s do a little bit of a thought experiment – all of these could fit in the editorial.

    “John McCain is thoughtful and seeks out a diverse cross-section of opinions, exemplifying the values of scientific enquiry. Witness his well-reasoned positions on climate change and Guantanamo Bay, in which he and his able staff sought out the expertise of the best scientists and Geneva Convention legal scholars. He stands out in particular on these issues as the evidence has convinced him to buck his own party for the better.”

    Or, how about, “John McCain exhibits a tendency to dismiss the values and process of scientific enquiry. His famous temper short-circuits the proper judgment of complex issues, and he tends to make instant decisions from his emotional gut.”

    Or, how about, “Barack Obama goes overboard in his solicitation of opinion. Disturbingly, his official advisors on specific issues number in the hundreds, a serious issue considering his career inability to make difficult decisions on issues that are from clear-cut, from his law review board days to voting present hundreds of times as a state-elected official. His tendency to overanalyze issues, yet eventually arrive at traditional party line policy is cause for concern if he claims the mantle of open-mindedness.”

    Or, “Obama’s willingness to actively solicit alternatives from a very wide spectrum and promise an intellectual diversity of appointees is both a strength and weakness. After the Bush Administration years, this is welcome. Bearing in mind the lesson of the Carter years, this could be disastrous. Dissenting and alternative opinions were encouraged among cabinet officials then, leading to a fiasco of key appointees regularly defying the president and undercutting official policy.”

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  23. TokyoTom Says:

    My own view is that Nature’s endorsement is inappropriate and is little more than an effort to ingratiate a portion of the scientitifc community with the group that Nature probably considers likely to constitute the next batch of political insiders within the White House and executive agencies.

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  25. David Bruggeman Says:

    Given that Nature is a British publication, there’s next to nothing that they can gain by selling out to political insiders in a White House or executive agencies. Exactly how would a research journal gain political favor? The open access laws in the U.S. have at best indirect effects on journals like Nature, so I think Tom’s suggested motivations unlikely.

    David, I don’t think Nature moved away from its areas of expertise – science and scientific research – when it made a value endorsement on which candidate would be more supportive of the values of scientific enquiry. I don’t like (or agree with) the idea that executive decisionmaking is equivalent to scientific enquiry, but since that is an inference of what you’re saying, I’d like you to please walk me through why you consider them equivalent, if you do consider them equivalent. Making decisions can rely on scientific enquiry, but there are many non-scientific things that play into decisionmaking that I don’t see them as the same thing.

    Further, it’s not clear to me why you think Nature’s rationale is weak, aside from this idea that scientists should only engage politics as a narrow special interest (making political choices based strictly on science policies and related issues). I would think a journal should strive to make some larger point than that “candidate x will do better by us”. Otherwise those efforts are better suited to advocates and lobbyists.

    As for your examples, first let’s emphasize that they are hypotheticals, and may not reflect the actual stances of candidates or how they arrived at those positions. They are also not connected to reasoned assessment in the same way that the Nature editorial does. This focus is necessary, and I would not be supportive of the editorial if it wasn’t. In fact, the last one focuses on process of soliciting opinion and not about assessing that opinion. Whether or not the choices reflect party lines or not is completely irrelevant to what Nature is focused on, and again focuses on political process rather than reasoned assessment of the issues.

    That said, I do want to dig a bit more on the idea of this endorsement being inappropriate. This may require a separate post, because I think my reasons for it being appropriate can be better demonstrated by a more explicit comparison with the bad job SEED did in its endorsement. I can’t tell from these comments whether the issue is any scientific publication opining on politics or Nature doing it. The idea that scientists or scientific institutions can (or should) hold themselves outside of politics is delusional. It does not mean that the engagement with politics should be done just like any other interest group. SEED failed that test, and Nature took good care. The idea that experts can only hold forth on the areas of their expertise is similarly stifling. The challenge is to take care to denote when the expertise is relevant and when it is not.