Critics sometimes tell us that Scientific American has strayed from what might be called “classical science content” and is wading into subject areas where we don’t belong.
This claim bubbles up most often when we publish stories related to social justice or human rights—on the research supporting health care for transgender people, for instance, or abortion as basic medical care. A Twitter user replied to an opinion piece against forcing trans girls to play on boys’ sports teams by writing, “You should probably move everything back to science, facts and stats and leave the ‘wokness’ [SIC], narrative skewing and agenda setting behind. It’s not good for your credibility.”
And in response to a recent job listing that described our commitment to diversity and inclusion, someone else tweeted: “Advancing DEI & Social Justice is not something any truth-seeking institution or organization should prioritize.”
These detractors are telling us to “stay in our lane,” that scientific inquiry is a pure, clean, completely objective enterprise, and that what we publish should be devoid of politics or the perspectives of people who are affected by the culture of scientific research. But the truth is that science is relevant to every element of society, including policy and politics.
As a publication committed to explaining the world around us, that means that every lane is our lane.
Using data-driven reasoning and analysis, science has solved problems and given us answers to major societal questions. For instance, after sequencing the human genome in 2001, the researchers who analyzed our strings of genetic code showed there were no significant differences among humans corresponding to racial categories. This helped change the narrative around the inherent meaning of race—that it is a social construct, not a biological one.
The landmark Turnaway study from the University of California, San Francisco, revealed the long-term effects of abortion. Antiabortion activists claim that people who get the procedure suffer from subsequent emotional and physical damage. The researchers found the opposite. By following approximately 1,000 pregnant women who either received an abortion or were denied one, the scientists found that the women who could not access abortion services suffered numerous negative aftereffects. This included financial problems, lower educational attainment, and more physical and mental health problems compared with women who were able to get an abortion. This medical procedure, politicized by people who believe that women should not be in control of their bodies, is not only safe and effective, but has lasting, positive results.
A recent feature article we published challenged some of the popular perception of Viking culture as male-first, might-always. Michèle Hayeur Smith, an anthropological archaeologist at Brown University found that Viking women controlled the production of tradable textiles, making them economic leaders in this society that is romanticized by white supremacists and incels (which stands for “involuntary celibates” and is an identity claimed by misogynist groups).
Science should illuminate controversial topics, and it is part of our mission to share the evidence relevant to important social issues.
In 2020, the editors of Scientific American endorsed Joe Biden for president. A Twitter user said: “Getting political means getting biased and a magazine that has ‘Scientific’ in its name should not be biased.” In truth, we have a long history of weighing in on divisive political issues. In April 1950, the magazine was set to publish an article written by physicist Hans Bethe (who had worked on the Manhattan Project) that was critical of the development of the hydrogen bomb. When the federal Atomic Energy Commission got wind of the manuscript, agents burned all 3,000 copies of the issue that contained the article. More than 30 years later, we published technical criticisms, also by Bethe and other physicists, of a space-based missile defense system known as Star Wars.
Science offers voters, policy makers and political leaders indispensable insight into the best course of action. Conversely, governing also involves political decisions about science. The executive and legislative branches determine budgetary allotments for billions of dollars in medical research and technological innovation for the energy sector, military tools, health care, food security, national infrastructure, and education. Perhaps as a reflection of this close relationship, a record number of candidates with STEM backgrounds are running for political office this year, according to the political action committee 314 Action Fund. They are meteorologists, doctors and many others, aiming to apply their expertise in scientific thinking to policymaking.
Telling us or scientists or other science writers to “stay in our lane” is a tactic to silence people with relevant expertise from weighing in on divisive issues. In some cases, the criticism attempts to maintain the power of wealthy, white, male members of society. This criticism comes most often when we report on science relevant to the health and well-being of disempowered groups, suggesting it is not a pure rejection of the fact that there is science behind social issues. Science is everywhere, and we at Scientific American are going to continue to cover the science relevant to social justice and the most vital questions facing human society.