Do Scientists Lose Credibility When They Become Political?

A new study suggests that, contrary to common fears, the answer is no.

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In 1933, after speaking out against the rise of fascism in Germany, Albert Einstein was chastised by the Prussian Academy of Sciences, from which he had pre-emptively resigned. His fellow physicist Max von Laue spoke out in his defense, but also cautioned that academics should separate themselves from politics. “Here, they are making nearly all German academics responsible when you do something political,” he wrote to his friend. Einstein responded:

“I do not share your view that the scientist should observe silence in political matters, i.e. human affairs in the broadest sense. The situation in Germany shows whither this restraint will lead: to the surrender of leadership, without any resistance, to those who are blind or irresponsible.”

Eighty-three years later, this debate about whether scientists should engage with politics is still raging fiercely. In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, several scientists are planning to run for office, a political action committee called 314 Action has formed to support them, and thousands of scientists and science enthusiasts are planning to march in Washington, D.C on April 22. These new movements bring old critiques: that scientists who engage in political advocacy are jeopardizing their credibility as objective, impartial, rational chroniclers of evidence. Worse, as Von Laue suggested of Einstein, these outspoken few risk the credibility of the entire scientific enterprise.

These are perennial objections—often repeated, but seldom tested. “There’s been plenty of speculation and commentary, but very little systematic research looking at how average Americans respond to advocacy by scientists,” says John Kotcher from George Mason University. In 2009, a Pew Research Center survey found that 76 percent of Americans “say that it is appropriate for scientists to become actively involved in political debates.” But that’s an “abstract idea,” says Kotcher. “We wanted to test how people respond to a concrete example.”

Enter Dave Wilson, Ph.D.—climate scientist, Facebook user, and work of fiction. In 2014, Kotcher recruited a nationally representative sample of 1,235 Americans, and introduced them to Wilson, billing him as either a climate scientist or a TV weathercaster. Each volunteer read one of six randomly selected Facebook posts, in which Wilson asked them to check out an interview that he had done with the Associated Press.

The topic of the interviews, as described by Wilson, varied along a spectrum of advocacy. In the first, he simply discussed the recent finding about rising carbon dioxide levels. In the second, he talked about the risks and health impacts of climate change. In the third, he discussed the pros and cons of various policy options. In the fourth, he urged people to take action, without championing specific policies. And in the final two, he outrightly endorsed one of two actions: cutting carbon emissions, or building more nuclear power plants.

Dave Wilson, shameless self-promoter
(Kotcher et al., 2017)

By surveying the volunteers afterwards, Kotcher found that almost all of Wilson’s statements had the same effect as each other. Whether he was sticking to the facts or pleading for action, the volunteers found him to be equally credible. His increasing advocacy didn’t change their view of the broader climate community, or their support for funding climate research. “We were pretty surprised,” he says. “Conventional wisdom till this point would have suggested that crossing the line from being purely informative to advocating for specific policies would harm a scientist’s credibility.” And that wasn’t the case.

The volunteers did feel that Wilson’s calls to action were more politically motivated than his statements of fact, and more intended to persuade rather than inform. It’s just that none of that affected his credibility. And although Wilson was predictably seen as less credible by conservatives compared to liberals, neither group was influenced by the degree of his advocacy. His standing only fell when the specifically advocated for nuclear plants. Even then, people found him more credible than not, and they doubted him not because he was taking a specific stance, but because they disputed what he was saying.

“The study suggests that scientists may have more flexibility to engage in issue advocacy without risking their standing in the public eye than they may realize,” writes Simon Donner from the University of British Columbia, in an accompanying commentary. Indeed, surveys have repeatedly shown that scientists are among the most trusted groups in America—a standing that gives them some leeway to state their opinions without harming their reputations. If anything, “public audiences are arguably more comfortable with advocacy by scientists than scientists are with advocacy by scientists,” Donner argues.

Kotcher agrees. “When I worked at the National Academy of Sciences, I witnessed first-hand the intense normative pressure for scientists to shy away from anything that might be construed as a form of advocacy,” he says. His results may go some way towards alleviating that pressure. “The best way to speak to scientists is in their language, and this peer-reviewed study is a good first step,” says Kathie Dello, a climate scientist at Oregon State University. “I think it may embolden some who were discouraged from becoming more engaged in the policy process, or encourage people to support colleagues who do this work even if they don’t want to do it themselves.”

“It’s very helpful, because it gives independent experimental support to what we already could deduce, based on historical evidence,” says Naomi Oreskes, a historian at Harvard University. For example, in a recent talk, she noted that Einstein’s advocacy for nuclear arms control didn’t harm his work on the theory of relativity. “The fear of losing credibility is exactly that: a fear,” she said.

Admittedly, Kotcher’s experiment also tested just one particular set of conditions—an older white man, talking about climate change, on Facebook posts, without opposition. It’s not clear how the volunteers would have reacted if, say, Wilson was a woman, or belonged to a minority group, or was talking about vaccinations, or was speaking in a radio interview, or was being challenged by a critic. “We have no illusions that this study will settle the debate about the proper role of scientists in public engagement,” says Kotcher. “We see it as a first step.” He hopes that others will replicate the study under different conditions, and then run a meta-analysis to compare the various results.

“Future research could also test if the public perceives more personal, direct messages from scientists—as on Facebook or social media pages—as more honest and credible than newspaper citations,” says Jagadish Thaker from the University of Massey, who studies climate change communication. “If this is the case, there is a need for more scientists to be speaking from such personal platforms, instead of speaking to the public only through journalists.”

Ultimately, Kotcher says, the decision about whether to engage in politics is a highly personal one. “Not everyone will be comfortable going out and doing these things,” he says. “Our goal is to help individual scientists make more informed decisions about which choice is right for them.”