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Climate Hustle

Scientists can be advocates and maintain scientific credibility

Posted on 13 April 2017 by dana1981

Scientists are often hesitant to engage in what might be considered “advocacy,” for fear of losing credibility with the public. But a recent study led by John Kotcher at George Mason’s Center for Climate Change Communication found that “climate scientists who wish to engage in certain forms of advocacy have considerable latitude to do so without risking harm to their credibility, or the credibility of the scientific community.”

The study found that the perceived credibility of a hypothetical scientist did not decline when that scientist advocated for generalities such as a “strong effort” to curb the impacts of climate change—nor did credibility decline if the scientist called for more specific and concrete actions such as “strict limits on carbon emissions from coal power plants.” But perceived credibility did decline when the hypothetical scientist advocated building more nuclear power plants, which are relatively unpopular amongst the American public.

These results suggest that as long as scientists don’t advocate for specific unpopular policies, a range of advocacy positions are available that won’t harm their credibility. For example, polling has shown that most Americans—including Trump voters—support policies to combat climate change. They also think it’s a bad idea to cut scientific research funding, they support clean energy, and they want the government to do more to mitigate climate change risks.

Additionally, there’s been no more important time in recent history for scientists to engage in advocacy on behalf of our science, which is under attack from the current administration. According to the March 16 issue of the journal SciencePresident Trump proposed a federal budget that would cut funding to the Environmental Protection Agency’s science programs by 40 percent, the Energy Department’s Office of Science programs by 20 percent, grants to the main research arm of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) by 26 percent, NOAA satellites by 13 percent, the National Institutes of Health by 20 percent, and so on. Trump’s EPA administrator rejects the expert consensus and overwhelming scientific evidence that human carbon pollution is the dominant cause of recent global warming, and has been filling EPA positions with like-minded individuals. President Trump has still only moved to fill one out of 46 key government science and technology positions, and reports indicate that the candidates he’s considering for the position of his science advisor all deny human-caused climate change.

The House of Representatives recently passed two bills that would severely limit the EPA’s ability to issue scientifically-justified regulations. And of course President Trump signed an executive order to roll back a slew of science-based government climate policies.

This month, we have two opportunities to engage in activism to push back against these anti-science policies, in the form of marches.

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  1. I think this depends exactly what sort of advocacy you mean. Let's say scientists make impassioned speeches in the media advocating renewable energy. As a lay person I would be comfortable with this to a point. I would expect climate scientists to support renewable energy, it would be very odd if they didn't, so it's probably not going to be a problem if they "ocasionally" advocate this. But too much of this might attract accusations of scientists not doing their main job. It's like anything, a question of balance

    It will also work best if it comes from a scientist with a generalist physics degree, who therefore has credibility to talk about energy. It might not work so well coming from a geologist, with all due respect.

    If you are talking about advocating for the science, then yes I think absolutely the more of this we see in the media the better. Every climate scientist I have seen doing this advocay in public has impressed me, although of course some are more natural at it than others.

    I expect people to stick up for their beliefs and interests. I suspect experts have more credibility with the public, than politicians or lawyers trying to advocate for the science.

    I think generally keep advocacy dialogue rational and measured, and don't get bogged down in detail. Having said this, there are times as a lay person I wish climate scientists would just occasionally show a bit of very public anger, at the nonsense we get from the denialists. If this is sparingly done, it has enormous impact.

    If you are talking about the anti - science issue dominating America, then I think scientists are absolutely entitled to march in the streets and strongly defend their position. Remember nice, quiet guys get walked over. I think you will get a lot of sympathy from the public. Of course none of us want to waste time marching in the streets, or in public relations, but sometimes it just has to be done.

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