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What’s at risk if scientists don’t think strategically before talking politics

Scientists have a lot to contribute – and a lot to lose. Mic image via www.shutterstock.com.

What’s at risk if scientists don’t think strategically before talking politics

Scientists have a lot to contribute – and a lot to lose. Mic image via www.shutterstock.com.

Earlier this fall, the nonpartisan nonprofit ScienceDebate.org released Donald Trump’s and Hillary Clinton’s responses to a set of questions about science policy. Shortly after, a group of 375 scientists wrote an open letter focused specifically on the United States honoring commitments around climate change. Seventy Nobel laureates then penned a more general Clinton endorsement; President Obama had garnered similar numbers of Nobel winners’ support in the previous election cycles.

As someone who both studies science communication and thinks of himself as a part of the scientific community, I applaud scientists’ desire to engage with our broader society. The scientific community has substantial expertise to share and a responsibility to share it.

On the other hand, I worry that doing things like asking candidates to weigh in on scientific questions in the context of a “debate” may have unintended consequences that need to be thought through as a community.

None of the below should be taken as a rebuke. Rather, the point is to honestly consider whether the scientific community is making strategic communication choices when it comes to this election. Poor choices could give the dangerous impression that scientific questions can be debated like policy choices – while also cutting into the public’s overall trust in science.

What happens when scientists engage politically

I’m very hesitant to suggest that scientists bite their tongues about things such as the threat of a political candidate who doesn’t believe in climate change. But I also worry that the scientific community’s tendency to respond to many Republicans’ unhelpful views about science policy with continued feigned surprise, and occasional derision, might have negative consequences for the continued strong place of science in society.

As might have been predicted, the ScienceDebate.org efforts, for example, showed that one of the major party candidates has limited interest in reassuring the scientific community that its views are respected. The climate change open letter similarly reiterates that our best scientists know the Republican candidate for president doesn’t care what they think and find it (understandably) disheartening.

It would be one thing if there was an opportunity for a real debate – in the sense of a meaningful exchange of ideas – between the candidates or parties about how to best use scientific evidence or best support science. And it’s not that political leaders don’t need to know about science; it seems clear that our top leaders should know a lot about many things, science included.

But did people really learn anything they didn’t already know about the candidates from recent, prominent science communication efforts? Many partisans used these releases to further deride the Republican presidential nominee about his views on science.

On the flip side, there’s no evidence a meaningful number of people who aren’t already broadly supportive of science pay much attention to open letters or were influenced by them.

If few people learned anything that would increase their support for science, then any benefits of scientists entering into the political debate aren’t obvious. But thinking of risks isn’t hard.

Scientists currently enjoy good social standing

At present, the scientific community is unique in experiencing both consistent and high levels of public confidence. In 2014, only 8 percent of Americans said they had “hardly any” confidence in the scientific community. “Confidence” in this regard should be understood as a measure of trust.

In recent years the public has reported higher levels of “confidence” in the military than scientists, but that’s fluctuated over time. The medical community used to enjoy the highest average level of confidence but has seen declines. Politicians and the media have long elicited less confidence than scientists, and have seen their standing further diminish over the years.

However, looking at the overall standing of the scientific community does hide the reality that conservatives appear to have gone from a group with relatively high to relatively low confidence in what researchers are up to. There are also efforts by some conservatives to make an issue of academics’ political leanings (alongside a warning that scholars need to recognize the dangerous position we’re in as academia becomes more liberal).

Unfortunately the best available, over-time measure of confidence in the scientific community relies on a single survey question that doesn’t clearly differentiate between the idea of trust as perceived warmth versus trust as competence. On this set of metrics, there is some evidence that scientists come off as competent, but cold. Other studies have also found, however, that most Americans believe scientists have their motives in the right place.

So, if we accept that scientists are already held in high regard, do they run the risk of tarnishing their current strong reputation by engaging in electoral politics when there are limited potential benefits? Even well-meaning reports like the one ScienceDebate.org produced could seem to suggest that relying on scientific evidence is up for debate and that scientists are political actors.

Speaking knowledgeably about research isn’t necessarily activism. John Minchillo/Associated Press

What is the risk of political engagement?

It seems important to differentiate between various kinds of public engagement. On the one hand, scientists may engage with the public around issues that have policy relevance in nonpartisan contexts. For instance, based on their expertise they might advise communities or policymakers, or talk about their work in public forums. Alternatively, they might get directly involved in the electoral process through endorsements and pushing candidates to take positions.

My particular worry is that by being too vocal about specific issues and candidates at election time, the science community might increase the risk of communicating to conservatives, in particular, that only a small proportion of scientists share conservative views.

In both 2009 and 2014, 64 percent of Americans said they didn’t think of scientists as politically liberal or conservative.

In reality, the available evidence suggests that most scientists do lean toward the liberal end of the spectrum. In 2009, the Pew Research Center reported that 55 percent of the scientists they surveyed from a prominent scientific society identified as Democrats with another 26 percent leaning toward the Democratic Party.

We don’t really know what the effect would be if more people began to see science as something that politicians seek to shape and use selectively. It doesn’t seem like it would help. The limited available evidence, for example, seems to suggest that framing a topic such as nuclear energy as a political issue decreases support for that technology.

More generally, can we really expect conservatives to come back to science by further pointing out, and sometimes belittling, their candidate’s rejection of science?

The risk of pushing conservatives away seems larger than most potential benefits. There’s a well-known tendency to process information in ways that support one’s existing views, known as motivated reasoning. It seems doubtful there are swing voters or center-leaning conservatives that could be “science shamed” into voting for a political candidate.

Climate scientist James Hansen speaks out before Congress about the political ramifications of his research. NASA, CC BY

We’ve seen what happened when climate change became politicized; do we want to head down that road with science in its entirety? It’s unlikely to aid science’s cause if there are more issues (like evolution) for which people tend to use their political ideology, rather than their overall positive views about science and scientists, to decide their stance.

And how researchers choose to communicate their work and views matters. Colleagues and I recently found in a set of experiments that in nonelection contexts, a scientist who aggressively attacks those with whom he disagrees – for example, on either genetically modified food or nuclear energy – received lower ratings of writing quality and likability. The aggressive tone seemed to violate subjects’ expectations for how a scientist should communicate, contributing to negative perceptions.

On the positive side, in previous surveys that other colleagues and I have done around the issue of genetically modified crops, for example, we’ve found that people can still accept as legitimate science-related outcomes they disagree with if they believe the decision-makers listened to and treated others with respect.

Considering the goal

Open letters and requests for science debates are a long way from aggressiveness. But the point is that our communication choices matter. The challenge is figuring out how to communicate strategically on behalf of science.

Being strategic means figuring out what you want to achieve through communication and what, realistically, you can expect to accomplish through the channels and resources available. It means not just saying or doing what feels right in the moment but thinking through, even testing, expected cause and effect.

None of this is to suggest that members of the scientific community shouldn’t speak their conscience or that recent efforts such as those by ScienceDebate.org were ill-considered. The point is only to encourage all of us who may sometimes want to communicate on behalf of science to systematically think through whether what we’re doing might help.

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