How Self-Censorship Is Perverting Science
Pleasing the Progressive Narrative Is the Opposite of Open Inquiry
In November 2022 the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) published a study purporting to show that mask mandates reduce the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19). The research was unremarkable; however, the way the authors framed their results demonstrated the progressive lens that now dominates the publication and its peers.
Apparently, universal masking was not necessary only because it reduced the harmful effects of COVID-19 (overlooking the secondary effects of such mandates). Rather, the authors particularly backed the policy because the effects of COVID-19 "have been disproportionately borne by groups already made vulnerable by historical and contemporary systems of oppression, including structural racism and settler colonialism.”
This emphasis on race as a risk factor for COVID-19—noting "Black and Latinx students and staff"—came across as forced for several reasons. After three years of the spread, we know the virus is most adept at harming the elderly and patients with comorbidities such as heart disease and obesity. Moreover, from the Census Bureau, “Provisional 2022 data show declines in mortality for all race groups between 2021 and 2022.” While there is some association between race and disparate health outcomes, there is a dearth of evidence showing racial discrimination primarily causes these disparities, including those related to COVID-19.
The NEJM study's authors went even further and highlighted “settler colonialism” for the same reason that academics in almost all scientific disciplines have been incentivized to politicize their work: publishing research that does not serve the reigning progressive dogma in some way is a serious offense. Scientists who commit this intellectual sin risk losing their careers.
In fields ranging from infectious disease epidemiology and climatology to tobacco control and obesity research, scientists are censoring themselves to appease ideologues who wantonly discard inconvenient evidence and punish their political opponents. This progressive confirmation bias has spread throughout academia, and it motivated Loretta Breuning, a former professor with a doctorate from Tufts University, to leave and write How I Escaped Political Correctness And You Can Too (2018).
This perverse development has undermined our ability to resolve public health threats. It has also cornered academics into functioning as apologists for censorship and ever-increasing government intrusion into the marketplace and our private lives.
Climate Scientist Censors Wildfire Study to Get Published
Wildfires have been on the decline for many years, and “[t]here is increasing evidence that there is less fire in the global landscape today than centuries ago,” the authors of a 2016 review article concluded. Nevertheless, climate scientists face immense pressure to publish studies exaggerating the risk posed by extreme weather events and to blame this phenomenon on global warming.
“I just got published in Nature because I stuck to a narrative I knew the editors would like,” climatologist Patrick Brown wrote in an eye-opening story for the Free Press. While acknowledging that climate change can contribute to wildfires, Brown observed that “it isn’t close to the only factor that deserves our sole focus.”
The recent blazes in Hawaii, for example, stemmed from invasive grasses that have grown unchecked since the 1990s. Proper land management is pivotal to preventing the next wildfire on Maui or anywhere else in the United States. Scapegoating oil companies will divert resources and attention away from the preparation that should be underway right now.
Brown knew what the major science journals wanted to hear. That is exactly what he told them:
[W]e didn’t bother to study the influence of these other obviously relevant factors. Did I know that including them would make for a more realistic and useful analysis? I did. But I also knew that it would [ . . . ] decrease the odds that the paper would pass muster with Nature’s editors and reviewers.
Brown’s experience is but one example of a troubling trend in climate science. Projections of carbon emissions have already overshot the amount of carbon dioxide we actually emit into the atmosphere. Yet “voluminous amounts of research have been and continue to be produced based on the outdated scenarios,” climate researcher Roger Pielke, Jr. wrote in 2020. Policymakers are trying to mitigate global warming based on science that is critically flawed.
In his book Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters (2021), Steve Koonin, a physicist and top scientist in President Barack Obama’s Department of Energy, argues that prevailing models have failed to capture the current and future effects of climate change. His book is a plea to the scientific community and the media to strive for accuracy rather than alarmism.
The Unfavored but Safer Vaping Alternative
The same phenomenon is undermining the field of tobacco control in the United States.
A growing consensus affirms that nicotine vaping is effective as a smoking-cessation tool. A Public Health England review has noted that vaping, although not without problems, is "95 percent less harmful" than combustible tobacco. Public health experts and federal regulators would best be on board with adult smokers switching to vaping, but they are not.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) appears to have rigged its review process for vaping products, allowing it to ban more than 99 percent of the devices and e-liquids on the market. When some agency scientists opted to authorize several flavored vaping products, agency leadership overruled them. Meanwhile, the federal government continues to subsidize the production and authorize the sale of new brands of combustible cigarettes.
The FDA’s punitive and irrational prohibition by regulation has chilled vaping research in the United States. Many scientists decline to conduct proper studies of the product “to avoid controversy by appealing to popular opinion,” a team of researchers from New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine reported last year. “[L]eadership at potential study sites has shown hesitancy in allowing [vaping] intervention research to occur within their patient populations,” the study found.
It gets worse. Researchers affiliated with the vaping industry have been barred from attending scientific conferences and publishing in medical journals. Even publicly-funded research that documents the clear benefits of vaping maligns the product as a threat to public health. For example, the American Heart Association’s (AHA) 2023 “scientific statement” on vaping reported that:
Studies have shown lower blood pressure, lower heart rate, and markers of improved vascular function in combustible cigarette users who switch to ENDS [vaping] products.
However, AHA’s press release and the abundant media coverage it generated amplified a very different message: “Research increasingly reveals health risks of e-cigarette use, and more studies are needed about the long-term impact e-cigarettes may have on the heart and lungs.”
To date, no US public health institution—the American Cancer Society, American Lung Association, American Heart Association, Food and Drug Administration, or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention—has backed vaping for smoking cessation. Several policy experts have suggested that these institutions are perversely incentivized to discourage vaping because it threatens their funding.
Political patronage poisons honest dialogue, and there is compelling evidence to support this explanation. Three wealthy, politically connected nonprofits—Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Gates Foundation, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation—have collectively given more than a billion dollars to public health groups, activist organizations, media outlets, and even universities to bemoan nicotine vaping. Johns Hopkins is home to the Bloomberg School of Public Health, which has been a consistent source of anti-vaping messaging for many years.
Obesity as Everyone Else's Fault
After smoking, obesity is one of the greatest public health threats to the United States. More than 20 percent of US children are obese today—going by body-mass-index measurements—a substantial increase from 5 percent in the 1970s. The statistics do not improve with age; roughly 40 percent of US adults are also seriously overweight.
Obesity stems from a variety of causes, but it is relatively simple to prevent and treat. Lifestyle changes to diet, exercise, and stress levels—especially when accompanied by professional support—have demonstrated their efficacy.
However, to placate those who resist lifestyle changes we see the rise of so-called fat acceptance. Proponents claim obesity is not a critical health threat but an identity that should be respected. To the extent that overeating is a problem, the argument continues, it is an addiction driven by food companies that make “hyper-palatable” snack foods and peddle them with persuasive marketing.
Obesity researchers, like their counterparts in climate science, have reacted to this ideological contamination of their field by . . . endorsing it. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) now ties itself in knots trying to discourage childhood obesity while lecturing its members “to uncover and address their own attitudes regarding children with obesity.”
The AAP declares that “Racism experienced in everyday life has also been associated with increased obesity prevalence.” Nature Medicine, one of the world's most prominent medical journals, similarly asserts that “Substantial research has demonstrated that weight stigma and discrimination are pervasive, global issues.”
Lost in all this postmodern confusion is the health and welfare of patients. Although overweight and obese people need not be shamed for their size, they should know the serious diseases they are courting and how to take better care of themselves. Unfortunately, many physicians are too busy avoiding “stigmatizing language” to treat them.
Science Serving Authoritarianism
The examples of perverted science go on forever, and there are books dedicated to documenting how thoroughly politics has warped academic research over the years. Beyond the intellectual derailing, political manipulation inevitably empowers the political class and favors established lobbies over newcomers.
Epidemiologists want to display their supposed antiracism, so they justify school mask mandates, whether or not they actually benefit children. Climate change has become the go-to justification for all manner of interventions, especially those impeding gas-powered vehicles. Combustible tobacco gets a pass while busybodies stand in the way of vaping. If you are overweight, the state will have to get involved and punish those who supplied the food you demanded.
The notion that these unscientific endeavors are altruistic and well-meaning rings hollow. They are part of a progressive crusade, backed by self-interested cronies. The Lancet, another prominent medical journal, put it bluntly in 2018:
To avoid the catastrophic consequences of [ . . . ] capitalism, we propose a new global sociopolitical framework that is urgently needed to protect and cultivate human health.
[ . . . ]
Karl Marx was concerned about the health of our planet and has interested us in a way to nurture the environment and an equitable world with improved social conditions.
This anti-capitalist nonsense is not science at all. It is mere ideology dressed up in the veneer of intellectual credibility.
As physicist Freeman Dyson wrote in The Scientist as Rebel (2008), "Science is a mosaic of partial and conflicting visions [ . . . ] But there is one common element in these visions. The common element is rebellion against the restrictions imposed by the locally prevailing culture."
In other words, scientists exist to challenge established dogma with empirical evidence—to follow the evidence wherever it leads. The sooner they return to that pursuit, the better off the world will be.
Fergus Hodgson (@FergHodgson) is director of Econ Americas, a financial and economic consultancy, and publisher of the Impunity Observer, a geopolitical intelligence service. A native of New Zealand, he resides in Fort Collins, Colorado, and holds an MBA in finance from Rice University and a BA in economics from Boston University.