Trying to be apolitical in a troubled time

April 18, 2018
The other day, I received a press release from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which as readers know is an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services, which is part of the executive branch. I get things like this all the time, and we often use them as sources for news items in our daily LABline e-newsletter.

The title of the press release was: “CMS issues final 2019 Payment Notice Rule to increase access to affordable health plans for Americans suffering from high Obamacare premiums.”

It is not without substance, and you can find it at the CMS website if you care to—but I was offended by the headline, and some of the content, which mixes substance with political propaganda. Trashing “Obamacare” is the stuff of partisan political speechmaking. It is not appropriate content for a government website (which is funded by the taxpayers).

Ordinarily, we at MLO would edit and publish announcements from CMS because we see it as our responsibility to keep our readers up-to-date on anything happening in Washington that could impact their professional lives. But we feel it’s also our responsibility to offer some educated, contextual observations about those announcements; unless we choose not to run something at all, for good reasons.

This represented such a case. We did not run this story in LABline, nor will LABline or MLO collaborate in this kind of politicization of a federal agency as long as I’m involved.

The disturbing news release points to a larger issue that faces journals like MLO, whose mission is apolitical, and which strive mightily to avoid politics: in this deeply troubling time, that’s not possible. In MLO we report facts—and that itself is a de facto political position. The present administration seems to disregard facts, obfuscating truth when convenient and using disinformation to sow discord in the government, and among the nation’s citizens.

So a magazine that is about facts cannot really be apolitical in the current political climate, as much as MLO would like to be. Respecting facts and supporting them with evidence is itself a political act nowadays. That is an unfortunate development for our republic and our democratic institutions.

Also: MLO is a science magazine, and the president seems to have an ambiguous, at best, attitude toward science. Throughout his administration, from the EPA to the CDC to the USDA and elsewhere, he has put non-scientists in positions that had always been held by scientists. Basic tenets of science are mocked and denied by administration officials. The scientific method and what theories and hypotheses are have been willfully misrepresented. (It is ignorant to say that something is “just a theory.”) The last administration’s Secretary of Energy won a Nobel Prize in Physics. This administration’s Secretary of Energy did not win on Dancing with the Stars. The two controversial individuals who have been in charge of the CDC, so far, represent a serious falling-off from former CDC director Tom Frieden, a distinguished scientist and public-health expert.

Like all journalistic outlets, MLO is challenged by the unprecedented attack on truth that marks and mars our time. We are proud to stand up for truth every month, simply by tending our own garden, in Voltaire’s phrase. Our garden is clinical laboratory science. This month’s issue includes articles on microbiology, molecular diagnostics, antibiotic resistance, HPV, and more. I have no idea what the party identification of any of the authors is, but publishing their manuscripts, because they are science-based, is a political act.

Perhaps you have never thought about it that way. I encourage you to. You are scientists; your professional lives revolve around scientific facts. However you voted, are you comfortable with the anti-science attitudes that pervade the public square these days?

We are doing our best at MLO to navigate these troubled waters and serve our readers well.