Why Scientists Should Speak Out

Researchers at George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication found that scientists remain credible even after making public statements that support climate action.

In the study, more than 1,200 participants read one of six Facebook posts from a fictional scientist, Dr. Dave Wilson, and then rated his credibility. The posts represented varying levels of advocacy.

At the low end, Wilson simply described a recent finding, noting that CO2 levels are on the rise. At the high end, he pressed for action on climate change without endorsing a particular course of action. In two other statements, he advocated for specific policies — calling for emissions limits on coal-fired power plants in one instance and more nuclear power in the other.

scientists speak out
The Stand Up for Science Rally in Boston. Source: Josh Landis

Readers regarded Wilson as no less credible after reading five of the six statements. Only after reading the statement on nuclear power did they regard him as less credible. Researchers said this suggests that scientists can advocate for climate action so long as they stop short of endorsing specific policies.

Conservatives rated Wilson as less credible than liberals did. Past research has shown those on the right tend to receive scientific statements about climate change more skeptically than their counterparts on the left. But the scientist’s statements did not further diminish his credibility — or the credibility of the scientific community — among conservatives.

These findings are especially notable given public attitudes towards climate scientists.

In the United States, seven in 10 people, including a majority of adults in every congressional district, trust scientists for information about climate change. A recently updated interactive tool from researchers at Yale and George Mason University breaks down public opinion on climate change by state, county and congressional district. Its findings align with past research showing that climate scientists are the most trusted source of information about global warming.

But despite trusting scientists for information about climate change, the public remains largely unaware of what scientists actually think about the issue.

Less than half of Americans know that scientists agree broadly agree about the causes of climate change. Study after study has shown that 97 percent of climate scientists believe that human activity is driving the warming trend.

Research shows that when people understand the scientific consensus, they are more likely to be concerned about global warming. Complicating matters is the fact that Americans rarely speak about climate change. Despite the overwhelming urgency of the issue, only around a third of adults talk about it occasionally. A similar proportion never talk about it at all.

Clearly, there is ample room for scientists to drive a public conversation about climate, to explain that researchers agree on the urgent need for action and to encourage policymakers — and the public — to tackle the carbon crisis.

Recently, there has been a shift in the scientific community, as researchers organize gatherings, like the March for Science, in response to the Trump administration’s repeated attacks on evidence-based research. Last week, scientists in Boston led a rally during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Harvard science historian Naomi Oreskes addressed those assembled, urging researchers to stand up to Trump.

“There have been many conversations in the scientific community about whether a rally is the right response,” said Oreskes. “We did not politicize our science. We did not start this fight. Our science has been politicized by people who are motivated to reject facts because those facts conflict with their worldview, their political beliefs or their economic self-interest.”

The assembled scientists and their supporters, armed with signs that read “stand up for science” and “bring back facts,” greeted her words with cheers and applause. Oreskes concluded with a forceful plea for scientists to advocate for their work — an act that cannot be discredited by those in power.

“It is not political to defend your colleagues. It is not political to defend your home. It is not political to stand up for science.”