7 July 2021

Why shouldn’t we ask scientists about their political beliefs?

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The Covid pandemic has taught us all a lot about science, but it’s also reminded us of some unanswered questions about how science works. Here’s one from this week: how should we think about scientists’ political views?

Monday saw a perfect illustration of this debate as Good Morning Britain co-host Richard Madeley collided with UCL behavioural scientist and SAGE government adviser Professor Susan Michie. A few minutes into the interview segment, Madeley wondered whether Michie, who is a card-carrying communist, might be more prone, due to her politics, to advise the government to enact more authoritarian anti-Covid measures.

Michie replied that scientists come on the programme to discuss evidence and theory, and that their politics aren’t relevant. Indeed, she added: “You don’t ask other scientists about politics”. Madeley asked her once again to confirm that her politics didn’t influence her scientific views, she repeated her reply about not wishing to discuss politics at all, and Madeley thanked her and moved on to a different question.

If you watch the mild and courteous questioning in the clip, I submit that you’ll be pretty surprised by the social-media reaction. Michie has sent in a complaint to Good Morning Britain and demanded an apology from Madeley and the show’s producers. Professor Stephen Reicher, another psychologist, has argued that Madeley is a “very bad journalist” who was “try[ing] to silence scientists”. Other scientists have described Madeley’s line of questioning as “outrageous”, “an attack on all scientists”, and, somewhat inexplicably, “misogynistic BS”.

The intense touchiness about being asked about political leanings is odd for two reasons. First, Michie’s political affiliation is more than a little unusual: she’s a longtime member of the obscure Marxist-Leninist group the Communist Party of Britain, which has just over 1,000 members. The CPB recently celebrated 100 years of the Communist Party of China and its “spectacular”, “epoch-making”, “undeniable” achievements. The party’s general secretary has strenuously defended the Chinese government against the “fictitious propaganda” that it is committing a genocide against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

You might debate whether this is relevant to the question of Covid restrictions in the UK; you might think Madeley’s rationale for asking the question tenuous, or itself hopelessly biased. But to be so surprised that a journalist would be curious about such an unusual set of political views – not just membership of the Lib Dems or the Greens, but of a tiny, extreme party – is stupendously naïve. If it was discovered that a scientist was a signed-up member of the British National Party, say, I can’t imagine any anger at the questioner at all.

Second, scientists are used to disclosing actual or potential conflicts of interest. They do this routinely in research papers, where the “Competing Interests” section will detail each researcher’s conflicts: perhaps they consulted in the past for a pharmaceutical company, or own shares or patents in a particular technology.

The trouble is that, beyond these specific kinds of financial matters, there’s little agreement on what should be considered a conflict of interest. What about being paid speaking fees on a lecture tour? What about income from a book on the same subject? What about non-financial conflicts, like being an enthusiastic adherent of the particular diet or exercise routine you’re researching? Should, to take an imaginary example, a Jehovah’s Witness who publishes a paper about the dangers of blood transfusions – strictly banned for members of that denomination – have to declare their religion in a section at the end?

In that particular case, I think we’d want to know, but many would still feel squeamish about making the declaration mandatory. And it’s the same for political views: we all agree that political views can have conscious or unconscious influences on the type of research scientists pursue or on their interpretation of the data. And yet the idea of forcing (or even asking) them to make those views public seems altogether too invasive and personal.

But too many scientific conflicts hide in this zone of awkwardness and averted gazes. For the sake of getting the science right, a lot more of what scientists believe should be exposed to the daylight. Just as scientists are moving towards greater openness with their data and methodology, they should also expand the circle of what might be considered a conflict of interest, and more routinely declare anything that might potentially influence their research on a particular topic.

There’s an important corollary. It’s not enough that scientists should consider and declare their own conflicts: they should also take steps to counteract them. One very simple method is to have a data analysis plan written out before any data are collected, to ensure they’re not tempted to change the analysis and “try it another way” if the data don’t look the way they’d like at first blush. We might all have our own political leanings, but we shouldn’t be resigned to an irretrievably biased science. We can all do our best to become as objective as possible, despite our limitations.

When asked about their political leanings on Good Morning Britain, a more transparent scientist could say something like the following:

“Yes, Richard – I am a member of that political party and it’s a fair question to ask. But I’ve done my utmost to stop my political views from influencing my interpretation of the data. I’ve also consulted with colleagues who don’t share my politics, to sharpen my arguments; many of them agree with the evidence-based views that I’ll be presenting on your show.”

Science isn’t science without disagreement, debate, and conflict – and for those to happen, you need a mix of opposing viewpoints. Scientists are entitled to hold whichever political perspective they like. But by the same token, science isn’t science without transparency. No matter why or how they’re asked to do so, scientists should be only too happy to put their viewpoint on the record.

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Stuart Ritchie is a psychologist and a Lecturer at King’s College London. His book Science Fictions: Exposing Fraud, Bias, Negligence and Hype in Science is available now. He has never been a member of any political party.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.