The British scientific journal Nature’s endorsement of Joe Biden in the 2020 U.S. presidential election did not change voters’ minds, but did reduce trust in science among supporters of Donald Trump who read the publication, a new study found.
The research, published in Nature’s sister journal Nature Human Behaviour, asked 2,000 voters to read the endorsement and compared their reactions to those of 2,000 controls.
It found “little evidence that the endorsement changed participants’ opinions about the two presidential candidates,” but did find that Trump supporters who had seen the endorsement were much less likely to trust Nature in particular, and scientists in general, than those who had not.
It also found that Trump voters who had seen the endorsement were less likely to seek out information on COVID-19 and on climate change than those who had not.
The View From Nature
Nature itself published a new editorial this week, defending its decision to endorse Biden in 2020. It acknowledged “the potential costs of making an endorsement,” in the form of making many voters less willing to trust both Nature and science itself.
“But inaction has costs, too,” it said. “Considering the record of Trump’s four years in office, this journal judged that silence was not an option.” The journal uses its voice “sparingly,” but “when the occasion demands it, we will continue to do so.”
It’s entirely understandable that Nature would want to endorse Biden in 2020. The points it made about Trump’s decisions on scientific matters — leaving the Paris accords and the WHO, downplaying the deadliness of the COVID-19 virus, and undermining health messaging — were justified.
But as I wrote at the time, while individual scientists are private citizens and should be entirely free to campaign for any political outcome they like, it’s problematic if scientific institutions start doing the same.
If Nature could point to any evidence that its intervention had at least changed some minds, then it could say that the cost was worth paying — but there is no such evidence, and its editorial doesn’t come to grips with that uncomfortable fact.
Nature was one of several journals, including Science, The Lancet, and The New England Journal of Medicine, to back Biden in 2020.
Nature’s editorial at the time expressed concerns about Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and his walking away from the World Health Organization and international agreements like the 2015 Paris climate accord, as well as his “disregard for evidence and the truth, disrespect for those he disagrees with and toxic attitude towards women.”
Even at the time, similar publications worried that by taking an explicitly partisan position, scientific journals could polarize the scientific debate, and reduce trust in the scientific community among conservatives.
A 2020 piece in Scientific American said that scientists advocating “in an expressly political way [risk] further polarizing public opinion about research.”