Weekly science journal Nature endorses a presidential candidate: Barack Obama (updated)

Posted on October 31, 2008

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Science is the domain of logic, of data, of mathematics and argument and proof. Scientists are supposed to be trained to recognize their biases and then to ignore or compensate for them in order to discover reality in all its awful glory. Politics is not usually considered a domain of science as politics is almost definitionally biased. And for that reason, politics almost never enters into the annals of stringently dispassionate and skeptical scientific journals such as the journals Science and Nature. That is what makes the endorsement of a presidential candidate by a premier scientific journal newsworthy here at Scholars & Rogues.

“To the best of the anyone’s knowledge currently here at the magazine, this
is the first time [Nature has endorsed a presidential candidate].” –M. Mitchell Waldrop, editorial page editor

Yesterday’s issue of the journal Nature endorsed Barack Obama for President in its editorial pages. Both candidates were praised for various parts of their platforms and histories (Obama for clearly stating what his research goals were, McCain for taking on his party on climate disruption). But apparently the journal’s editors decided that this year they couldn’t stop with acknowledging that both candidates recognition of “science’s inspirational value and ability to help achieve national and global goals.”

The editorial points out that Obama appears to have surrounded himself with a diverse group of advisers in an attempt to ensure that his own decisions are based on a pragmatic assessment of all the information available and to immunize himself from groupthink. In the opinion of the editors, McCain’s advisers are not similarly diverse in their opinions, and McCain appears to be less inclined to educate himself on all the issues. And the editors singled out his choice of running mate as a particularly worrying sign.

But what seems to ultimately have pushed Nature’s editors over to endorse, for the first time in available memory, a presidential candidate comes down to these two things:

Placing a disinterested view of the world as it is ahead of our views of how it should be; recognizing that ideas should be tested in as systematic a way as possible; appreciating that there are experts whose views and criticisms need to be taken seriously: these are all attributes of good science that can be usefully applied when making decisions about the world of which science is but a part. Writ larger, the core values of science are those of open debate within a free society that have come down to us from the Enlightenment in many forms, not the least of which is the constitution of the United States.

and

[A] commitment to seeking good advice and taking seriously the findings of disinterested enquiry [sic.] seems an attractive attribute for a chief executive.

Science in all its various forms has the ability to point the country and the world toward answers to our most difficult problems. But we’ve had eight years of and administration treating science like it was just another belief system; like it was witchcraft. Four more years of a president uninterested in unbiased and pragmatic advice from all of the best minds in the world, not just the best minds our president agrees with, would simply be too much.

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