If Nature was endorsing candidates on the basis of where they stood on issues that affected scientific progress or on how they would affect the amount of dollars for scientific research, it would be easy to see its motivations. These would of course put the magazine in the role of a special interest, but at least it would make some sense.
But Nature says that this is not why it is endorsing a candidate:
There is no open-and-shut case for preferring one man or the other on the basis of their views on these matters. This is as it should be: for science to be a narrow sectional interest bundled up in a single party would be a terrible thing. Both sides recognize science's inspirational value and ability to help achieve national and global goals. That is common ground to be prized, and a scientific journal's discussion of these matters might be expected to stop right there.So why does Nature magazine endorse Obama? Because he more closely reflects the "values of scientific enquiry." That's right, science apparently encompasses values:
... science is bound by, and committed to, a set of normative values — values that have application to political questions. Placing a disinterested view of the world as it is ahead of our views of how it should be; recognizing that ideas should be tested in as systematic a way as possible; appreciating that there are experts whose views and criticisms need to be taken seriously: these are all attributes of good science that can be usefully applied when making decisions about the world of which science is but a part.In what way is science "bound by, and committed to, a set of normative values"? Science is bound by values? How? According to what definition of science can you say that it involves values in any way? Scientists can be bound by and commited to values, but science itself? A scientist can adhere to a set of values, but not insofar as he is a scientist. He can adhere to them insofar as he is a man, or as he is a philosopher, or as he is a citizen, but not a scientist.
Any values that "science" possesses are derived from something other than science, since science itself stays exclusively on the fact side of the fact/value distinction. The Nature editorial suggests this, but, in the very same paragraph contradicts it. It says one of the "values" of science is placing a "disinterested view of the world as it is ahead of our views of how it should be..." This makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. "Values" involve precisely how things "should be." That's what values are.
And what is a political endorsement anyway except a statement saying who people should vote for?
The Nature editorial even talks about science's "core values":
Writ larger, the core values of science are those of open debate within a free society that have come down to us from the Enlightenment in many forms, not the least of which is the constitution of the United States.The values of open debate have nothing to do with science. They are entirely ethical or political concerns.
Why do scientists say such stupid things? The biggest reason is this: As soon as science starts talking about itself, it is outside its area of expertise. If science is the empirical study of natural things and processes, then, since science is not a natural thing or process, a scientist can't say anything about it--at least not as a scientist. If science is not an object of science (which, according to the definition of science, it can't be), then whatever a scientist says about it he says as something other than a scientist.
You can't talk scientifically about science. You can talk philosophically about science, or ethically about science, or emotionally about science, but the one thing you can't do is talk scientifically about it. And one of the most common mistakes scientists make is to forget this.
The Nature editorial endorsing Obama betrays a complete lack of understanding of science's inherant limitations and a completely confused set of notions about what science is. That's what happens when people try to pretend they're not being political partisan when, in fact, they are.
The editors at Nature should stop hiding behind their laboratory smocks and just come right out and say that they are pushing their own personal political agendas--political agendas that lie outside the scientific enterprise. Anything less just undermines their own credibility.