Virtue Signaling by Scientific Journals Backfires, New Study Finds

Nature's 2020 endorsement of Joe Biden changed no minds but did significantly undermine trust in science.


"Political endorsement by scientific journals can undermine and polarize public confidence in the endorsing journals and the scientific community," reports a new study by Stanford economist Floyd Zhang in Nature Human Behavior. Shocked? Not at all.

A month before the U.S. presidential election, Nature published an editorial supporting Democratic candidate Joe Biden for president. The editorial justified its endorsement by citing Donald Trump's "disastrous response to the COVID-19 pandemic" and also decrying his promotion of "nationalism, isolationism and xenophobia — including tacitly supporting white-supremacist groups." Consequently, the editors declared, "We cannot stand by and let science be undermined. Joe Biden's trust in truth, evidence, science and democracy make him the only choice in the US election."

In his study, Zhang conducted an online survey during July and August of 2021 randomly exposing more than 4,000 Trump and Biden supporters to two conditions. The treatment group saw a summary of the Nature endorsement, and the control group read a description of Nature's new redesign. Both groups were reminded that Nature is one of the world's most prominent science publications.

Zhang reports:

The endorsement message caused large reductions in stated trust in Nature among Trump supporters. This distrust lowered the demand for COVID-related information provided by Nature, as evidenced by substantially reduced requests for Nature articles on vaccine efficacy when offered. The endorsement also reduced Trump supporters' trust in scientists in general. The estimated effects on Biden supporters' trust in Nature and scientists were positive, small and mostly statistically insignificant. I found little evidence that the endorsement changed views about Biden and Trump. These results suggest that political endorsement by scientific journals can undermine and polarize public confidence in the endorsing journals and the scientific community.

Rather than being chastened by Zhang's findings, the editors of Nature doubled down, responding with a new editorial insisting that they will continue to endorse political candidates. "The study shows the potential costs of making an endorsement," acknowledge the editors, however adding, "But inaction has costs, too."

Zhang responded on Twitter that he finds the new editorial's "counter-arguments and the conclusion unconvincing." As he notes, while it may well be true that the original editorial was calling out a truly disastrous situation, "there's no evidence that 'inaction has costs'—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 suggest to be *not* the case." Zhang's research shows that Nature's 2020 endorsement of Biden, in which the editors asserted that they "cannot stand by and let science be undermined," did just the opposite by significantly eroding trust in the scientific enterprise among out-party voters.

The new Nature editorial asserts, "Political endorsements might not always win hearts and minds, but when candidates threaten a retreat from reason, science must speak out." What for? If editorial endorsements are NOT about winning hearts and minds, they amount to useless virtue signaling. Nature's editors should follow the science and stop issuing counterproductive political endorsements.