America's top science journal has had it with Trump
So it’s surprising (but maybe not as much as you think) that Science’s newish editor-in-chief has focused a laser-like stream of neural energy at calling out the crummy pandemic policies of the Trump administration. H. Holden Thorp, a chemist and longtime university administrator, became editor-in-chief of Science and five other journals published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science last October, just two months before Covid-19 started spreading around the world. The hopes of a planet full of humans looking for treatments and vaccines turned quickly to scientists, and Thorp’s journals would have been among the places that the best, most relevant work would appear. It has, of course. But Thorp also started a crusade from Science’s editorial page, calling out the ways Donald Trump’s administration has ignored, misunderstood, and misused science for political gain. Now Thorp’s editorial page is at the forefront of a movement—with scientists casting aside the old stereotype of apolitical disinterest. On Wednesday, even the venerable magazine Scientific American endorsed a presidential candidate for the first time in its 175-year history. (It was Joe Biden.)
Thorp’s most recent broadside, "Trump Lied About Science," appeared last week. It was the most vigorous condemnation yet, a lightning siege of criticism over Trump’s admission, to the journalist Bob Woodward, that the president knew Covid-19 was more serious than he acknowledged to the public. "This page has commented on the scientific foibles of US presidents. Inadequate action on climate change and environmental degradation during both Republican and Democratic administrations have been criticized frequently," Thorp wrote. But this, he added, "may be the most shameful moment in the history of US science policy."
That’d be tough stuff on any newspaper op-ed page; from a place like Science, which has in the past had a somewhat arid editorial voice, it was fire. Thorp has been activated. I asked him what did it, and how his new approach might change science—and Science. Thorp’s answers are here, edited lightly for length and clarity.
WIRED: So how bad are things, really?
Thorp: If you look at the history of our journal and the editorial page, there have been times when we were at odds with the federal government. George W. Bush was, probably is, a creationist—that created a lot of heartburn for us, but he did a great job with worldwide funding for HIV. Ronald Reagan was certainly not any help on HIV, but he also did a lot to develop the science infrastructure in the United States. But none of those things ever really became the dominant story of what we were publishing in the journal and what the rest of the country and world were thinking about. And then you put the unusual and unacceptable characteristics of Donald Trump on top of that, and we’re in completely uncharted territory. It’s pretty hopeful that in another year we’ll have people vaccinated and we’ll be able to go back to the way things were, but the situation—both in terms of the virus and the ways in which the administration has tried to undermine scientists and scientific research—is something we’ve never seen before.
What specifically are you thinking of? Is it, say, the controversial emergency use authorizations by the Food and Drug Administration of hydroxychloroquine and then convalescent plasma as Covid-19 treatments?
Well, there’s that, but there’s also just the constant drumbeat that scientists and science are somehow out to get the administration. You know, the people I write for are the people who have been working in the lab for 14, 18 hours a day, trying to find a vaccine or an antibody or something about the immune response to the virus. They go home, they’re exhausted, they turn on the news, and their president is on TV saying the opposite of what they’re finding, and trying to imply that somehow they’re hurting the world by doing what they’re doing. So my editorials are meant to give voice to those valiant souls, who are the ones who are going to get us out of all this.
Is what’s happening to scientists now really any different than the gaslighting that anyone who studies climate change might have felt, though? Any existential scientific issue with big policy implications gets this kind of pushback?
I mean, the first tough editorial I wrote about the president was about the new EPA transparency rules. So yeah, there are a lot of parallels between climate denial and this kind of denial. I think what is different here is the speed of it and the degree to which the president is willing to go into the Rose Garden or the briefing room and just say things that are blatantly untrue.
But what specifically made you decide to start writing more critical editorials?
The first really tough editorial that I wrote about Covid-19 was called "Do Us a Favor." It was in March, when Trump sent out the tweet saying, you know, Covid-19 is just the flu, and Kellyanne Conway and Larry Kudlow were on TV saying the virus was contained. And Trump had a meeting with pharmaceutical representatives where he said of vaccine research, "Do me a favor, speed it up." And to me that "Do me a favor, speed up a vaccine" was one of the worst things a president could say to scientists—even corporate scientists at pharma companies. Because, you know, we can’t speed up the biology. We can work hard, and we can try to do everything as quickly as nature will allow us to. But as you’re seeing in these vaccine trials, they have to run long enough that enough people in the control arm get Covid. That’s not something you can just say and expect to have it happen. And I think the president thinks that he can just say something forcefully enough and make it true. That’s not really how science works.
That’s where the whole Bob Woodward thing becomes interesting. To find out now that he wasn’t clueless—he knew precisely that the virus was deadly, that it was going to be a really tough problem, that it affected young people. And still he was saying all those things that he was saying in March. To hear that in his own voice, I think, was one of the most devastating things that has ever happened to science. Not devastating in terms of what science can do, but just psychically devastating.
Because the president knew what he was saying wasn’t true, and he said it anyway?
Because, think about what science has been putting up with. We have people telling us we’re all deep-state liberals who are trying to destroy the planet, that we’re taking away hope for people, that we’re being too melodramatic about how bad this all is. And all of the stuff that Trump and his surrogates have been saying turns out not only to be wrong, but that they knew it all along. All the snark that scientists have been putting up with, from the news and from their family members who are Fox News people—all these things that we were supposedly doing to sabotage the world were all lies and knowingly delivered, planted, by the president of the United States.
But one of the arguments those Fox News people, as you say, will make is that when scientists voice political opinions, they call into question the motivations behind the research they’re touting. Do you worry that becoming so outspoken makes you even more vulnerable to that criticism? Now you’re just in the political fray, right?
No. I believe we’ve been overly deferential to the idea that we should stay out of it. Look at what that’s gotten us. It’s gotten us climate denial. It’s gotten us creationism. It’s gotten us prohibited from doing stem cell research. These are all costs of scientists saying, "Oh, we’re just going to sit over here in our white coats and let people conclude what they want to." You know, there is no apolitical science. Science is done by human beings in political environments funded by the federal government. The notion of apolitical science has never been real to begin with.
How do you get that across to someone who’s not ready to hear it? It’s a complicated concept—everything has political implications, but taking them into account doesn’t necessarily compromise the work?
Well, yeah. I mean, if you invent facts, that’s wrong. Excellent scientists and excellent journalists don’t invent facts. And so the way that those facts are presented happens through human beings who have their own ideas and things that they’re trying to get across. It really comes down to: Is this an accurate presentation of the facts? If it is, then it needs to be acknowledged and dealt with. That’s why Bob Woodward having the president on tape saying, "I’m trying to play this down, it doesn’t just affect the old"—no one’s trying to argue that he didn’t say those things. If there’s a relentless pursuit of the facts, that is what we should be devoted to. The facts say things about where we are in the world.
And you think the president and his spokespeople mischaracterize those facts on purpose. This isn’t incompetence or ignorance?
Well, yeah. I mean, I think the president’s comments to Woodward confirm that it’s on purpose.
You think they’re not open to changing their minds. You couldn’t just show them a really good PowerPoint and bring them around?
Right. That’s a great way of saying it. I think that’s what we all suspected, but the force of hearing the president’s voice confirming it is, like I said, psychically devastating.
Have you gotten pushback about taking a more aggressive posture, becoming overtly political, from other scientists?
You know, there are a few readers of our magazine who write to me pretty predictably on something like that. It’s small numbers. I think that what I’ve been trying to do is to create a voice for science. Of course, there’s not one single voice for science, but I think there’s a large amount of coherence among scientists about all of this. I get a lot of affirmation from other scientists.
If you’re hoping to inspire a change in the way scientists behave, what do you want to see happen next? What do scientists have to do?
It has to involve engagement with the political forces. Our little journal is, yes, it’s very, very important in the world of science. But if a lot of people read one of my editorials, that’s 100,000 people. Ben Shapiro’s getting 50 million people to look at his Facebook posts. We don’t have the kind of reach into the public consciousness on our own. So we’re going to have to partner. And that’s, again, where this apolitical thing kind of falls apart. Science and scientific publications don’t reach into the public consciousness on their own. Even outstanding science journalism doesn’t get as much traction as blatantly political stuff. So somehow we have to partner with the people who can develop that kind of audience. We certainly can’t do it on our own.
So, some other outlet with wider reach, and Science will contribute its credibility and expertise?
Sure. Well, we certainly hope that’s true. We’ll continue to plug away creating an enduring scientific record that we can be proud of, that stands the test of time. And we’ll hope that we can find somebody who wants to engage with us and the political apparatus of some country where we can begin this work. Whether that’s going to be the United States next year or not, I think is unknown. But we still need an amplifier. And, you know, it’s unfortunate that we don’t have an accurate amplifier right now in the White House.