Consensus, Understanding, and Integrity


In my ECCF post in May, I discussed my concern about the politicization of scientists and the perception of that amongst conservatives and the general public. Recent papers add to my concern that the perception of scientists has become politicized, and will continue to be so, particularly when viewed through the lense of news media and social media. The concern over politicization brought the following question to mind. When it comes to climate scientists, what matters more to you: consensus, understanding, or integrity? I don’t expect anyone to have an immediate answer. New research examines how all three affect how people view the legitimacy of scientists in the public sphere. Indeed, multiple articles published in 2017 examine the reasons behind why scientists are distrusted. These authors point out that while the public perception of climate change has been studied extensively (as in this example), the public perception of the scientists themselves remains understudied. Given the current time we find ourselves in, these articles on the perception of scientists caught my attention.

Gauchat et al. provide interesting conclusions to that question (at least for scientists in general). First, perceived integrity has a greater effect than perceived consensus on attitudes about scientists credibility and advisory legitimacy. Second, that political disposition influences the perception of legitimacy both directly and indirectly (e.g. conservatives see less legitimacy for scientists generally and because of a perceived lack of credibility and integrity). Finally, political polarization extends beyond perceptions of climate change to perceptions of climate scientists. “…polarized attitudes toward environmental scientists’ understanding and integrity are each more important to their advisory legitimacy than perceptions of their agreement”. This is all quite interesting since the surveys Gauchat et al. used were done in 2006 and 2010. That said, I think the results are still valid given the results of polling from the Pew Research Center in 2016, particularly with regards to integrity and political disposition. Not only is it so that public opinion on climate change is polarized, so too are attitudes toward the scientists themselves. Who would have thought it possible that the image of scientists could be polarized?

Numerous studies have pointed out that conservatives have less trust in scientists than other groups, particularly in impact scientists (e.g. those concerned with understanding human impacts on the environment). The next logical question is – why? Some might say that conservatives are anti-science and uneducated, but the science on this topic doesn’t back that up. Two recent studies (here and here) have pointed out that the decline in trust among conservatives comes primarily from educated conservatives (Bachelor’s degree or higher) with a high science literacy. In addition, Cofnas et al. point out, rightly, that “…someone might strongly believe in the scientific method, but doubt that mainstream scientific authorities are living up to its requirements.”

Knowing there is a lack of trust amongst most conservatives, and that perceived integrity is important for aligning public opinion with scientific findings, what might be underlying these trends? Cofnas et al. suggest a concerning option. Conservatives have reacted to a (perceived or legitimate) increase in impact scientists using their authority and institutional prestige to advance an opposing political agenda via intentional misrepresentation or distortion of science. Admittedly, Cofnas et al. are focused on activism in social sciences, but the thought is not necessarily foreign in the climate science world either. Perhaps two of the most prominent examples where someone could think that climate scientists were intentionally distorting their science are Climategate (and version 2.0) and the Climate Data Controversy. All have since been debunked, but present in each was the idea that science has been distorted by scientists themselves for the sake of a political agenda. That is something which can quite easily cast an unfavorable perception of integrity and erode trust. I wonder – all these cases were presented (mostly) through news media or other messengers, would the effect have been less negative if we (i.e. scientists) were the messengers? Perhaps so given one of the final conclusions drawn by Gauchat et al. “once scientific claims about climate change enter the public sphere, either through the accounts in the news media or from elected officials, they become politically charged.” More scientists have become invested in being the messengers, if only to defend themselves. Being our own messengers without crossing into political advocacy is a challenge, but there are some that have found success, and that should give us all hope.

For the general public, integrity matters. Luckily, there’s already a great way to address this. A number of scientists (such as Katharine Hayhoe) have successfully begun using a values-based approach to climate communication. Building relationships and connecting with audiences based upon shared values and open discussion is important because it builds integrity and trust. The trick with that effort is that no one can do it for you, because no one can present who you are personally better than you. Hearing claims and arguments from a mediator (or through a medium) doesn’t easily allow trust to be built between you and your audience.  If you let others speak for you, you run the risk of being painted a color not of your choosing. Someone else’s color choice may be one you find hideous!

What to do? Take hold of the paint brush! Go out to even the most difficult audiences, but don’t just talk to them. Listen to them, connect with them. It’s challenging to connect with people who have very different views, but establishing that human connection builds a favorable perception of integrity. It doesn’t happen overnight, but then again, great works of art weren’t made overnight either. It’s going to take a while, but if we take hold of the brush the resulting portrait will be amazing!

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