How scientists can fight for science without losing trust

By John Cook | April 17, 2017

The risks of automation and semi-autonomous systems, even when human operators are notionally in the loop.The risks of automation and semi-autonomous systems, even when human operators are notionally in the loop.

Scientists quite rightly adhere to strict standards when they conduct research. Results are based on evidence, and rigorously peer-reviewed by experts in the field. After results are published, other scientists attempt to replicate them so that over time, conclusions are either upheld or disproved. These procedures are the heart of the scientific method.

In an ironic twist, these evidential standards are not always followed so strictly when it comes to how to communicate science. Often debates about how to talk about science are populated with opinions based on gut instinct and anecdote rather than evidence-based scientific research.

For example, common wisdom among the scientific community is that when engaging with the public, experts should stick to their science and refrain from advocacy. If they venture outside strict factual observation, they fear risking a loss of credibility—or even worse, that the whole scientific community will be tarnished by association. Therefore, they believe, scientists should talk only about what is, not what ought to be.

Researching the researchers. This view, however, is not based on scientific research. In fact, there’s a surprising dearth of study on the issue, and what does exist tends to focus on narrow scientific fields. On the topic of marine parks, a survey of stakeholders found that almost all agreed that scientists should be integrated into policy making, and half agreed that scientists should actively advocate for specific policies. Similarly, a survey of people working in natural resource management found strong support for integrating scientists more into the policy-making process.

Until recently, the largest study in this area was a 2009 Pew national survey which found that three quarters of the public think it is appropriate for scientists to be active in political debates. While this survey indicated that the public is open to scientists playing a more active public role, it didn’t directly test the impact of advocacy on a scientist’s credibility.

A new study fills in that knowledge gap. Led by John Kotcher at George Mason University, the researchers set out to experimentally test the impact of advocacy. They split participants into groups and showed each group a different message from a scientist on the topic of climate change. Each message varied the degree of advocacy from the scientist. At one end of the spectrum, the scientist talked simply about scientific measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. At the other extreme, the scientist advocated for specific climate policies such as limiting carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, or building more nuclear power plants.

With one exception, the researchers found that regardless of the level of advocacy, participants thought the scientist was equally credible. A scientist advocating for limits on coal plant emissions had just as much credibility as a scientist who stuck strictly to reporting results.

The exception? Credibility did drop when the scientist advocated for nuclear power. This means scientists don’t have carte blanche to say anything. The more appropriate interpretation is that advocating for specific policies does not necessarily reduce a scientists’ credibility.

The March for Science. The timing of the study’s publication is fortunate given the upcoming March for Science on April 22. The idea for such a march began as a modest Reddit comment early this year, and quickly exploded into a genuine movement. Within 24 hours of the initial comment, the March for Science Facebook page accrued 300,000 followers.

Tens of thousands of scientists and non-scientists have signed up at the March for Science website. As well as the main march in Washington DC (in which I will participate), over 500 satellite marches are planned around the world.

As you might expect for an impromptu movement growing at an exponential rate, the march has experienced teething problems. One concern is that the march, and the scientific community by association, runs the risk of being seen as a politically partisan and therefore less credible voice. The fear that science advocacy could become associated with partisanship was also raised during a street rally for science during the American Geophysical Union annual meeting last December, just one month after the US presidential election. At that meeting, I spoke to many scientists concerned about signals from the incoming administration indicating ambivalence or even hostility towards scientific research. Climate scientist Kim Cobb gave an impassioned speech, entreating scientists to emerge from their labs and conference halls and stand up for science. At the same time, she stressed that her public advocacy was not about partisan politics but in defense of science.

The fear of science being perceived as partisan is a legitimate one. The last thing we need in the current environment of alternative facts and post-truthism is for scientists, the very people we count on to study physical reality, to lose credibility with the public. But what the new study shows is that there is a way to take a policy stand without losing public trust. As scientists like Cobb suggest, it’s important to emphasize specific, science-based policies rather than championing a political party. This approach is echoed by Emily Vraga, a co-author of Kotcher’s new study. When I spoke to her about her research and its implications for the March for Science, she stressed that in the study, all of the messages they tested, including the ones advocating specific policies, were non-partisan in nature.

The lesson is that scientists can in principle step outside their scientific bubble. They are highly trusted voices among the general public, and their evidence-based contribution is more important than ever. But they should engage with careful and thoughtful deliberation.

In a commentary on Kotcher’s advocacy paper, climate scientist Simon Donner reflected on the example of Albert Einstein, who managed to engage in public advocacy while maintaining high levels of credibility. Nevertheless, Donner concluded:

Under President Trump, it could be more important than ever for scientists, especially climate scientists, to channel Einstein and take a stand. It is also important to remember that Einstein did not have a Facebook account, and to take a deep breath before clicking send.

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