The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Scientists have long been afraid of engaging in ‘advocacy.’ A new study says it may not hurt them

The “Rally to Stand Up for Science” in Boston’s Copley Square on Feb. 19. (Chris Mooney for The Washington Post.)
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We’re in a very strange place for the science world right now.

There was a time in recent memory when scientists were very afraid of something called “advocacy.” While the term was variously interpreted, the general fear was easy to characterize: taking a stand perceived as political would undermine the credibility and objectivity of the research community in the eyes of the public. Accordingly, scientists tended to support the stance that they should simply lay their knowledge out there (often in very technical language) and let politicians decide what to do with it — drawing a firm line between “science” and “policy.”

Now, however, a large number of scientists and their supporters are poised to demonstrate on April 22, in an event that not only can be characterized as advocacy but that, despite its official nonpartisan stance, will surely be interpreted by some as a form of anti-Trump advocacy.

The political and social consequences of a massive March for Science like the one that may be coming are impossible to predict — much depends on the volume of media coverage and also its tilt. But in the meantime, new research has emerged that casts doubt on some of scientists’ reasons for fearing advocacy — even as it does not directly speak to the possible consequences of the march itself. The result is likely to be even more debate over the proper role for scientists in an increasingly polarized society.

In the new study published in the journal Environmental Communication, George Mason University’s John Kotcher and colleagues from George Mason and the University of Wisconsin at Madison probe the consequences of scientist advocacy using a representative online sample of 1,235 Americans. The study’s respondents were presented with six experimentally varied examples of a supposed Facebook post by a climate scientist named “Dr. Dave Wilson,” who in the post flags a recent media interview he has done and, elaborating on it, takes a variety of stances, representing increasingly sharp forms of advocacy.

At the most modest position, Wilson merely notes that atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations of 400 parts per million represents “the first time in recorded history that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide have been this high.” If that’s advocacy, then any providing of context alongside scientific information probably would be.

But in other variants, the faux researcher goes further, arguing that “we should make a strong effort now to avert the worst impacts of climate change” or even that “the best solution would be to set strict limits on carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants” or to “build more nuclear plants.”

In other words, the scientist’s stances ranged from simply describing what we know and what it means — advocating, you might say, for facts and their significance — all the way to advocating for specific policy positions targeting specific polluting industries. The latter form of advocacy, in particular, has long worried researchers. (A still more dramatic form of advocacy — taking a partisan political stand — was not included in the study.)

So what did the research subjects think of this? The results were pretty surprising: When respondents were asked about the researcher’s credibility after reading the Facebook posts, none of the stances seemed to produce a significantly lower credibility rating for the scientist, except for the stance advocating nuclear power. This was unexpected — nuclear power is controversial on the political left and that may have dragged down the scientists’ credibility rating overall. But opposing coal did not have the same effect, nor did standing up for strong but unspecific climate change action.

“To us what it suggests is that contrary to conventional wisdom, at least members of the American public are not quite as discerning as members of the scientific community are in terms of where the ethical boundary lies,” Kotcher said.

However, the study also found that political conservatives rated Wilson as having less credibility than liberals did. But this didn’t vary depending on the stance he was taking — conservatives were just more dismissive period.

“Conservatives just across the board tended to evaluate him more negatively,” Kotcher said. This comports with research suggesting those on the right have a lower trust in scientists, particularly on environmental issues.

So what are the implications of this for the coming March for Science, which describes itself as “a diverse, nonpartisan group to call for science that upholds the common good and for political leaders and policy makers to enact evidence-based policies in the public interest” and that is just as clearly drawing energy from people’s concern about the Trump administration?

That’s not entirely straightforward — the research was actually conducted back in 2014, before anyone was proposing a demonstration or knew Trump would be elected. Still, Kotcher says, there are some interesting things to be weighed.

First, he noted, the study presented a scientist’s views to the public directly, but people’s perceptions of the march will largely be mediated by the media — and many people probably won’t even hear anything about it at all, limiting its likely impact to a subset of the public.

“We’re only looking at the direct impact of exposure to these messages, it doesn’t look at how these statements could be recontextualized and reframed by critics,” Kotcher said. “It’s certainly reasonable to expect that some are going to reframe the march in terms that make the scientific community look biased.”

However, at the same time, the research also reinforces that some on the right — those who may be most likely to be offended by the march or to perceive it as an attack on Trump — already think that the research community is biased. “Things are already polarized,” Kotcher said.

So in other words, people are likely to interpret the march through the lenses of their prior biases, and the biases of the media that they’re already accustomed to consuming. Just like everything else in American political life.

Thus, in the end, while scientists may have been overly afraid of some types of advocacy in the past, the march nevertheless presents a test case because it is likely to be so very public and runs the risk of being interpreted through partisan lenses. The closer to politics they get, the more scientists can be sure that (1) partisans will reject or embrace them according to their partisanship; and (2) partisans already had biases that will color their interpretations.

So since the march is indeed going to happen and seems unstoppable — major scientific organizations are now embracing it — what may be most important is that participants seek to control what they can control rather than what they can’t. And to Kotcher, that means it’s important to stand up for knowledge in a disinterested way, rather than for, say, more dollars for science funding.

“I think a lot of it hinges upon whether the march is seen as something that’s broadly in the public interest or whether it’s seen as a self-interested act on the part of scientists to protect their own interests,” Kotcher said.