Since the start of the Trump presidency, scientists have been some of the most outspoken advocates against his anti-science agenda. Scientists and science supporters have protested against the Trump administration’s support of coal, rejection of the Paris Climate Accords, and continued denial that man-made climate change is a thing.
Some scientists took to the streets in marches to protest publicly. Others wrote strong editorials, or even ran for political office. Some of them added not-so-subtle jabs at Trump to their professional work, such as one group who auctioned off the rights to name a newly discovered amphibian. The legless, blind creature that buries its head in the sand is now going to be named Dermophis donaldtrumpi.
But when does political mockery detract from the critical, unbiased ideal of science? Should a scientist’s political beliefs impact his or her research?
During this past president's tenure, the authors of a scientific paper published in Nature, a prestigious and high-impact journal, revealed their own mockery of the United States president: they placed his picture on feces.
The paper, which as of the publishing date of this article is still available on Nature Scientific Reports, describes a new method for capturing the DNA of a host organism from its faeces. (Short everyman explanation: most of the DNA in faeces comes from bacteria, but a small fraction of the DNA comes from shed intestine cells. By using differences between mammal and bacterial DNA for sorting, the authors were able to easily and cheaply improve the yield of host DNA for analysis.)
In this paper, the scientists provided several figures. The first figure focused on the steps involved in their method for extracting host DNA from faeces:
No one noticed anything amiss, including the editors who approved the paper, images included, for publication. The paper was published on January 31st of 2018, sliding cleanly through without much of a splash (sorry). The details of the hidden image weren’t exposed until microbiome scientist and popular community advocate Jonathan Eisen dropped them in a tweet:
I’ll save you the effort of downloading the paper, and will reveal the zoomed-in image:
Yes, that’s the president’s visage on the right-hand side of the turd.
The tweet kicked off a veritable shit-storm (sorry) of discussion, with scientists weighing in on both sides. Some found it offensive, juvenile, and inappropriate. Others considered it to be a brilliant bit of satire. Others expressed frustration with the fact that, politics aside, this jape depended on the inability of editors to recognize exactly what they were publishing. Funny or not, this may set a dangerous precedent for scientific authors attempting to trick their reviewers. Some expressed concern that this shallow joke undermines the seriousness of science and cheapens other attempts to present strong and cogent arguments against some of the Trump administration’s anti-science policies.
Overall, the response from other scientists on Twitter seemed largely positive. Most of them saw the humor in the joke. Of course, the party had to end sometime:
Almost a year after it was initially published, the visage of Trump was removed from the turd (although it still lives on through images on Twitter and the pre-print of the paper published on bioRxiv: https://www.biorxiv.org/content/biorxiv/early/2017/02/02/032870.full.pdf).
Although most of the audience got a chuckle out of the hidden image, there were also plenty of comments pointing out the inappropriateness of the action. Should science become politicized? The position of many has long been that the only position science should take is the position that can be quantifiably proved true with facts; science shouldn’t support the political right or left, but should stand staunchly for the truth.
Do actions like this transform science into a circus? Should a cheap shot at a political figure, regardless of whether their stance is profoundly anti-science, be allowed? By publishing this bit of potty humor (sorry), are scientists sinking to the same level as, say, an overly biased political cartoonist?
There’s no easy answer to this question. The opinions of individual scientists span a wide spectrum, much like overall political sentiment across America. Some scientists stand at one end of the spectrum and claim that science should never support any political group; it merely does its best to state objective, provable truth. Other scientists declare that scientists should be the strongest activists, fighting hardest for actions that are supported by overwhelming evidence.
In the end, while the joke was funny, it is probably for the best that it was wiped (sorry) from the record by the Nature editors. As Eliezer Yudkowsky said, “to be clever in an argument is not rationality but rationalization.”
If science is to triumph over ignorance, it must do so through education and knowledge, not through juvenile poo-slinging (sorry) and insults.