Science gets entangled with politics; it always has and it always will. And every time it happens the reputation of science get damaged. I am of course not a scientist and cannot speak authoritatively to these matters; but I can at least point to some intellectual problems that need to be addressed. 

Two recent examples: 

  1. Jesse Singal describes a study on gender-transitioning teens that discovered that “the kids in this study who accessed puberty blockers or hormones … had better mental health outcomes at the end of the study than they did at its beginning” — or did they? Apparently not. Signal can’t be certain about this because the researchers have hidden their data, but their claims look pretty darn fishy. Even so, no one in the media is going to ask hard questions because the study says exactly what they want to hear
  2. In the New York Review of Books, a biologist and a historian review a new book on the genetics of intelligence. They don’t like the book because they think that the idea of “a biological hierarchy of intelligence” has been repeatedly “discredited” and is not supported by the arguments of the book under review. But here too a great many complex questions are oversimplified or simply ignored, as Razib Khan points out

The study on trans kids and the NYRB review share a core conviction: Scientific studies that could lead to unfavorable social outcomes by providing support for our political enemies must be denounced and their authors shunned. As Stuart Ritchie has commented on the latter contretemps,  

It’s dispiriting to think that our public debate on genetics is going to be forever hobbled by this kind of thing, and from ostensibly authoritative sources. Other fields like evolutionary biology, climate science, and immunology have their creationists, climate change deniers, and antivaxxers, but they’re not usually Stanford professors. In this area, the nuisance call — the nihilist call, encouraging us to cut off our entire scientific nose to spite our behaviour-genetic face — is coming from inside the house.

But again, this is an old story — especially in the NYRB. When E. A. Wilson’s Sociobiology came out in 1975, a group of scientists wrote to the NYRB to denounce it, and were quite explicit about why it had to be denounced: Theories like Wilson’s “consistently tend to provide a genetic justification of the status quo and of existing privileges for certain groups according to class, race or sex.” Wilson’s purpose, they said, was to “justify the present social order.” Wilson replied with a detailed refutation of their claims about him personally — “Every principal assertion made in the letter is either a false statement or a distortion. On the most crucial points raised by the signers I have said the opposite of what is claimed” — but this didn’t slow his opponents’ crusade against his ideas, because even if Wilson didn’t hold lamentable political views, others certainly do, and might well use sociobiological arguments to buttress their regressive policy ideas.

(One of Wilson’s collaborators, Bert Hölldobler, says that Richard Lewontin was quite explicit about this: “When I asked why he so blithely distorted some of Ed’s writings he responded: ‘Bert, you do not understand, it is a political battle in the United States. All means are justified to win this battle.’” That sounds suspiciously pat to me, but it certainly wouldn’t be surprising coming from Lewontin.) 

Thus, in 1979, when the NYRB published a strongly critical review by Stuart Hampshire of a later book by Wilson, the same people who had so strongly denounced Wilson four years earlier wrote to complain about Hampshire’s review. Hang on: they complained about a negative review of Wilson? Yes indeed: 

Hampshire neglected the social and political issues which are at the heart of the sociobiology controversy. Three years ago many of us wrote a letter in response to a review of E.O. Wilson’s earlier book, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, in which we pointed out the political content of this new field. We expressed concern at the likelihood that pseudo-scientific ideas would be used once more in the public arena to justify social policy. The events of the intervening years have fully justified our initial fears. 

Again, I can’t adjudicate the scientific questions at issue here; I am making a different point, which is this: Wilson’s critics are quite explicit that what really matters to them is not the philosophical naïveté or scientific inaccuracy of Wilson’s work but its anticipated political consequences. So it seems quite likely that if Wilson’s work had been philosophically sophisticated and scientifically unimpeachable their critique would not have changed

Of course, many similar stories can be told — and have been — about Covidtide, during which “trusting The Science” was an absolute imperative: as knowledge grew what counted as The Science changed, but at any given moment you were compelled to insist that (a) The Science is infallible and (b) The Science supports people like me against our political enemies. 

There are many reasons why millions of America don’t trust The Science, including belligerence and ignorance, but if you ask me, I would say that the most important reason is illustrated by the stories above: Scientists are sometimes untrustworthy. If they want to rebuild our trust in them, then they should start with three steps: 

  1. Practice the self-critical introspection that would enable them to perceive that, because they are human beings, there are some things they very much want to believe and some things they very much want to disbelieve; 
  2. Acknowledge those preferences in public;  
  3. Show that they are taking concrete steps to guard themselves against motivated reasoning and confirmation bias. 

If scientists and science writers were to take such steps, that would be helpful for us as readers; and even better for them as thinkers and writers.