Science Policy & Funding News

Scientist Credibility Unhurt by Climate Advocacy, Study Suggests

In a social science experiment, a fictitious meteorologist who advocates climate policy stances retains credibility among test subjects.


A common fear among climate scientists that advocacy may tarnish their reputations as objective, honest information resources has received new scrutiny from a team of science communication researchers. In a study yet to be published, the researchers have found that scientists have more freedom to engage in advocacy and make policy recommendations than conventional wisdom suggests.

In scientific fields, “there’s definitely an institutional culture where there’s a lot of normative pressure against anything that could be construed as advocacy,” said John Kotcher, lead author of the new study by a team of researchers at the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication in Fairfax, Va. He spent 4 years as a communications officer at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D. C., where he saw these concerns firsthand. Kotcher shared the results of the study as part of a panel discussion last month at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Science and Technology Policy Conference in Washington, D. C.

Building a Science Advocate from Scratch

To determine whether more overt advocacy from a scientist made people view that scientist as less credible, Kotcher and his team did an experiment. In their test, they surveyed the reactions of more than 1200 people to statements that reflected six different levels of advocacy around climate science on a continuum between objective statements of recent findings (“atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) recently surpassed 400 parts per million”) and recommendations of specific actions (“limiting CO2 at coal power plants”).

Previous studies had shown that weather forecasters are generally thought of as trustworthy, so the experimenters portrayed the statements as coming from a fictional meteorologist named Dr. David Wilson. The team posted the made-up statements on Facebook and reviewed the responses to see if participants had rated Dr. Wilson as less credible when he made higher-advocacy statements. Participants also rated the credibility of the scientific community as a whole on the basis of Dr. Wilson’s advocacy statements.

To the team’s surprise, they found almost no change in public perception of Dr. Wilson or the scientific community. In fact, Dr. Wilson’s credibility suffered only slightly when he advocated for building more nuclear power plants to combat climate change. The authors believe this may indicate that the advocacy issue—not the act of engaging in advocacy—has the biggest impact on public perception of the scientist.

There are plenty of variables, however. The study didn’t cover more dramatic forms of advocacy, like video interviews, op-eds, rallies, and civil disobedience. Test subjects also might have reacted differently if the advocacy had come from an institution or professional society or from a scientist talking about a subject other than climate change.

Does It Make a Difference?

The results of the study come as no surprise, said Stephan Lewandowsky, chair in cognitive psychology at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom. “There’s been this sort of widespread perception that scientists shouldn’t engage in advocacy, but I’ve never actually seen any good evidence of that,” he explained.

Kotcher’s research confirmed his suspicions that these perceptions are unfounded, Lewandowsky added. He also sees the study as a valuable jumping-off point for questions about practical applications in science communication: “Does [a credible scientist’s statement] actually shift people’s attitudes? Does it help them to make up their minds? That’s a different question,” says Lewandowsky. Future studies of science advocacy will help to address some of these variables, he predicted.

Kotcher hopes his findings will help to provide some framework for future research. Whereas prior studies of the impact of advocacy on scientists’ credibility have largely relied on anecdotal evidence, the new quantitative study provides “really concrete examples of a scientist (in this case a fictional scientist) engaging in some sort of form of advocacy to see how people react to that—rather than this abstract notion of engaging in public policy,” said Kotcher. This new work may mark “the beginning of a more evidence-based conversation about this topic,” he added. This evidence could be critical for scientists hoping to bridge the gap between the public and the science community.

—Lily Strelich, Freelance Writer

Citation: Strelich, L. (2016), Scientist credibility unhurt by climate advocacy, study suggests, Eos, 97, doi:10.1029/2016EO052005. Published on 9 May 2016.

Text © 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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