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Scientists Can Also Be Advocates Without Losing Credibility

That’s the key finding of a new study, which cautions that they may want to avoid getting too specific with policy proposals.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Sebastien Bozon/AFP/Getty Images)

The upcoming March for Science, in which scientists will take to the streets of Washington, D.C., to support and defend their work, isn’t universally seen as a good idea. One geologist recently argued that it “will serve only to trivialize and politicize the science we care so much about,” and turn researchers “into another group caught up in the culture wars.”

This debate revolves around a central question: Will engaging in advocacy lower the credibility of scientists in the eyes of the public? How far can researchers go in drawing conclusions and recommendations from their work before readers start to suspect bias?

New research suggests the answer is: farther than many people might think.

A research team led by John Kotcher of George Mason University reports the credibility of a fictional climate-change scientist did not suffer if he discussed policy options, urged people to take action, or even made one specific recommendation.

He was viewed more suspiciously only when he stated a position on a highly controversial issue — building new nuclear power plants.

“Our results suggest that climate scientists who wish to engage in certain forms of advocacy have considerable latitude to do so without risking harm to their credibility, or the credibility of the scientific community,” the researchers write in the journal Environmental Communication.

The study featured a nationally representative survey of 1,235 Americans recruited online. All began by reading a biographical sketch of Dave Wilson, who was described either as a climate scientist or the chief meteorologist at a local television station.

Participants were then randomly assigned to read one of six Facebook posts purportedly written by the fictional Ph.D. In one, he objectively laid out the facts about a recent finding (that atmospheric levels of CO2 recently surpassed 400 parts per million). In another, he added “information about climate change risks and impacts.”

A third included “a brief discussion of the pros and cons of two mitigation policy options,” while a fourth featured “a statement urging non-specific action on climate change.” The last two included messages endorsing specific climate-change policies: limiting CO2 emissions at carbon-emitting power plants, and building more nuclear power plants.

After reading one of those statements, participants indicated how credible they found Wilson, whether they felt his motivation was based on science or personal politics, and whether they feel trustful of “the broader community” of climate scientists or weathercasters.

“We found that Dr. Wilson’s credibility suffered only when he advocated for the specific policy of building more nuclear power plants,” the researchers report. “Most advocacy messages we tested had no significant effect on Dr. Wilson’s credibility, or general trust in climate scientists.”

While that’s good news for scientists who wish to speak out, the finding that nuclear power advocacy lowered his perceived competence and trustworthiness is important to note. “Even if people do not object to scientists engaging in advocacy per se,” the researchers write, “they may still object to a specific position that is advocated.”

Why nuclear power set off alarm bells in people’s minds, while reducing power-plant emissions did not, isn’t entirely clear. But Kotecher and his colleagues note that just over half of Americans polled in 2014 expressed opposition to building such plants. Perhaps his advocacy raises suspicions “that Dr. Wilson was attempting to use climate change as a justification to expand nuclear power, rather than as a good-faith effort to reduce CO2 emissions,” they write.

That question aside, the researchers conclude that “climate scientists advocating for action broadly may not harm their credibility at all.” So long as researchers don’t get too specific, it seems the public is open to hearing not only the details of their findings, but also their informed take on the research’s implications.