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How Scientists Can Make Facts Great Again

Scientists looking to regain public trust need to speak clearly—and also to listen.
Scientists and supporters participate in a March for Science in front of City Hall on April 22nd, 2017, in Los Angeles, California.

Scientists and supporters participate in a March for Science in front of City Hall on April 22nd, 2017, in Los Angeles, California.

About the same time last week that the Environmental Protection Agency started scrubbing climate change Web pages, leaders of the scientific community in Europe warned that there's a global trend of dismissing mainstream science when it interferes with political or economic objectives.

Gagging scientists, banning immigration, or restricting visas for researchers are all having a chilling effect on the international science community, according to Jonathan Bamber, president of the European Geosciences Union.

"We need to make sure that mainstream scientific views are accepted and taken seriously by policymakers and the public," Bamber said during remarks at the EGU's annual assembly, which was dedicated to helping scientists stand up for facts in an increasingly hostile political climate. Bamber also suggested the root cause of the hostility: "Why would the public think scientists would lie? Because politicians are telling them that," he said.

Christiana Figueres, former executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, told the assembly: "We're not in a business-as-usual scenario." She was referring to the fact that Donald Trump is now president of the United States. "Do not be intimidated; this is the moment for science. It's time to re-establish the scientific underpinnings for all the decisions of mankind," Figueres said.

Figueres, who helped shepherd the Paris climate agreement in 2015, said public trust in science isn't an issue with the message. Polls show there is a broad trust in science—although in the U.S. there is a sharp partisan divide between Democrats and Republicans, as well as distinct differences on certain issues, including climate science. That may be because global warming is such a vast problem that people simply choose not to believe the science because of the discomfort, she said.

"Here is my frustration. You are up there in your labs and ivory towers, and when you come out, we mortals do not understand you," she said. "Speak outside the tent to businesses and policymakers. They are the ones who are going to determine whether we have good future or an unbearable future."

Panelist Heike Langenberg, chief editor of the scientific journal Nature Geoscience, offered a more pessimistic take, saying that the public disregard for science may have already passed the point of no return.

"Here is my frustration. You are up there in your labs and ivory towers, and when you come out, we mortals do not understand you."

"We think facts speak for themselves, but that's not so; science needs trust," Langenberg said, adding that there's already a pervasive public perception in many countries that science has been politicized. Changing that perception will require scientists to regain trust, and that means finding a new way to communicate.

"Facts don't speak for themselves. People like stories, whether they are factual doesn't really matter, but scientists can make stories about science, including evidence and uncertainties," she said, encouraging scientists to engage when there's a teachable moment.

"If there's a weather disaster, public opinion swings. The 2003 heatwave convinced many Europeans that climate change is real. In the wake of those events people are receptive, and they want to know what happened," Langenberg said. "Leave the echo chamber, try hard to understand what people think, what they doubt, and talk to them with the expectation to learn, not with expectation to teach them something."

Christine McEntee, executive director of the American Geophysical Union, pointed out that U.S. scientists have faced similar situations under past administrations.

"Despite what you read in the headlines, these intrusions are not a new issue, In the past two congresses before Trump, there were proposals to defund climate science. What was different was we had a president willing to push limits of executive orders and the power of the veto pen," McEntee said, referring to Barack Obama.

But the unsettling U.S. election results, and recent actions by the Trump administration, like removing climate change and greenhouse gas information from the EPA website, have "certainly and with great validity heightened fear in the scientific community," McEntee said.

The divisive politics of Brexit have also left a mark on science issues in the United Kingdom, said David King, former science advisor to Prime Minister Tony Blair. In 2008, Parliament passed the ambitious Climate Act by a vote of 478 to four; King said that victory was possible because there was a social consensus in the country at the time, based on trust in science.

"It's no longer as it was in 2008. With the Brexit movement and UKIP (the U.K. Independence Party) things have swung toward questioning the science," he said.