Scientists can’t be advocates, and other myths

Debunking common misconceptions about the role of science in policy

1 — Science and advocacy are not only compatible, but synergistic

During the AGU session “PA022: Engaged scientists: Personal and Professional Climate Action by Climate Change Researchers,” put together by the “Engaged Scientists” initiative at the University of Colorado, Harvard University historian Dr. Naomi Oreskes challenged the idea that scientists lose credibility when taking strong political stances, citing historical examples from earlier in the century. Nuclear physicists spoke out against nuclear proliferation, arguing that as physicists they had a uniquely vivid appreciation of the damage nuclear weapons could wreak. Similarly, climate scientists sounded the alarm about climate change, including the causes and mechanisms and the implications of burning fossil fuels. Dr. Oreskes argued that scientists’ unique expertise and knowledge position them better than most to discuss clear and present dangers, whether from nuclear war or climate change. Indeed, as climate scientists, we can say with confidence that humanity must control GHG concentrations in the atmosphere, a logical conclusion rooted in our scientific research and expertise (that is called epistemic proximity — the relevance of someone’s expertise to the topic of advocacy).

When we don’t speak up, it is assumed that we do not care.

Taking this a step further, Dr. Shahzeen Attari pointed to her recent work, demonstrating that climate scientists’ transparency in regard to their efforts to mitigate their own carbon emissions actually increases credibility in the public eye. In other words, by “practicing what they preach,” climate scientists not only improve their public credibility but also inspire action, predicated on their willingness to share some concrete actions the public can take to help address climate change.

2 — Science and political engagement are not mutually exclusive

Science has always been political, regardless of whether scientists are politically engaged. This is because science is governed by the needs and ideas of the society at large and subject to society’s political will. The majority of scientists value public engagement and communication, and public confidence in science and scientists is much stronger than popular debates about GMOs and vaccines might make you think. In fact, even when ideology is taken into account, scientists are still more trusted than industry leaders, the news media, and elected officials.

3 — Scientists are not only capable, but are the right messengers for science

There are ample examples of stellar and trusted science communicators, people who can distill complex ideas (especially about uncertainty) and root their communication in shared values. Scientists like Katharine Hayhoe, Kate Marvel, and Michael Mann are not only leading in their respective climate science fields, but are also innovative and trusted communicators. Science communication has become a coveted skill, and AGU sessions like “WS14: Storyboarding Your Science: Creating Engaging, Effective Communication” address the need to build and support a new generation of effective science communicators.

Where does that leave us?

  • Scientists can and should speak about science in the public (but take into account epistemic proximity).
  • Scientists’ credibility does not suffer from advocacy or political engagement.
  • Scientists are trusted by the public, and communicating the perils of climate change and the potential solutions is our job.
  • Science communication around climate should be rooted in values. And science has some pretty great values — honesty, curiosity, collaboration, humility, and civility in discourse, to name a few.

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