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Climate scientists considering going public can take heart in this new study


A new study, published in Environmental Communication, shows that the public is more willing than was previously thought to accept climate change advocacy from scientists. The study counters previously held beliefs that scientists who made statements promoting climate change science or advocated certain policy prescriptions risked losing their impartiality or putting their credibility at risk. The report’s findings take on an added layer of importance in the era of “post-truth” politics; an emboldened scientific community that is willing to speak publicly could help counter President Trump’s disregard for climate change, and his accusations that the media is the “enemy of the people.”

The study, conducted by researchers at George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, used Facebook posts by a made-up scientist to test whether advocacy statements would affect the way the public viewed the scientist’s credibility. The statements were tested on over 1,000 responders and ranged in the intensity of their advocacy; some statements merely mentioned a new scientific discovery on climate change (atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide surpassing 400 ppm), others urged “non-specific action on climate change”, while others recommended specific policies (limiting CO2 at coal plants or building more nuclear plants). The study found that the scientist’s credibility was largely unaffected, suffering “only when he advocated for the specific policy of building more nuclear power plants to address climate change.”

Notably, the study found that when the scientist advocated for non-specific solutions to climate change, their credibility didn’t suffer at all. This counters previously held beliefs that scientists pushing for action on climate change would risk the public believing that they were politicizing their science, or worse, that they were part of a liberal climate change conspiracy. The report’s findings “suggest that scientists who wish to engage in certain forms of advocacy may be able to do so without directly harming their credibility, or the credibility of the scientific community.”

These findings are especially important when understood in the context of climate change science, which has long been politically charged. Over the past few decades, there have been many incidents of climate scientists being accused of lying or fabricating data to promote liberal political ideologies. One of the most notable of these events occurred in 2009 in an episode known as Climategate, when the emails of prominent climate scientists were hacked and published, supposedly showing an international conspiracy to fabricate climate research. Despite the fact that the emails, when read in their full context, didn’t amount to any evidence against the integrity of research or the scientists, the push back against climate scientists was swift and severe. A number of scientists reported getting death threats, and Climategate rumors are still found circulating conservative forums today.

Under the Trump administration, the situation remains tense for climate scientists. Trump has made it clear that climate advocates aren’t welcome in his administration, threatening the EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture with gag orders against speaking to the press. A member of the USDA recently told the Intercept that they were “actually scared to talk” to journalists because of the new administration. The ability to speak out publicly is made even more restrictive by Trump insisting that he is the only source of true information:

The public isn’t—you know, they read newspapers, they see television, they watch. They don’t know if it’s true or false because they’re not involved. I’m involved. I’ve been involved with this stuff all my life. But I’m involved. So I know when you’re telling the truth or when you’re not. I just see many, many untruthful things.

Although Trump’s statement is full of Orwellian logic, there is a grain of truth there: it’s sometimes best to get your facts from people that have been “involved with this stuff” all their lives, which in the case of climate change, means listening to climate scientists. And the findings of the study suggest that Americans may be willing to do just that.

Last week, Dr. Benjamin D. Santer, a prominent climate researcher, appeared on Late Night with Seth Meyers to explain how important it was for the scientific community to continue speaking out against the Trump administration’s stance on climate change:

Imagine, if you will, that you spend your entire life trying to understand one thing and that thing is the cause of change in the climate system. To the best of your ability you do that, and then someone comes and dismisses everything you’ve understood, all of that scientific understanding as a hoax, as a conspiracy, as worthless, as a contrived phony mess. You have a choice. What do you do with that? You can either retreat to your office, close the door, and be silent. Or you can choose to push back against ignorance and say, “Hey, this is not our understanding…The President of the United States saying nobody really knows the causes of climate change. And we do. So this is a moment when people — when people are willing to listen, when I can come on your show and say, “Nobody really knows” is wrong, it’s fake news.

Hopefully America is listening.