Scientists, Trust, Media and Climate Change

Photo credit: jkpics/stock.xchng

Who do you trust? That question is at the heart of public debate on climate change. If you trust the scientific community, which overwhelmingly acknowledges the reality of climate change, then you likely think climate change is a global problem that requires a global response. If you don’t trust scientists, then you may have no strong feelings about climate change – or you may think that it’s some sort of hoax.

The relationship between trust and public perceptions of climate change was highlighted twice this month. First, on April 2, climate watchdog group Carbon Brief released the results of a poll showing that U.K. citizens trust scientists more than anyone else as sources of accurate information on climate change. Second, a paper published online April 3 in Public Understanding of Science examines the relationship between media use, trust in scientists and perceptions of “global warming.”

The Poll

The nationally representative poll of 2,017 U.K. adults found that 69 percent of respondents thought scientists are “trustworthy” sources of accurate information on climate change. Only 7 percent of adults thought scientists were “untrustworthy.” Politicians, on the other hand, were perceived in almost the exact opposite way: 7 percent of adults thought them trustworthy, while 64 percent thought them untrustworthy. (Note: a link to an Excel spreadsheet of poll findings is here. The “trust” section of the poll is question 11.)

Perhaps a more interesting finding is that the BBC was considered trustworthy by only 31 percent of adults and was considered untrustworthy by 25 percent. And the BBC was by far the most trusted news outlet.

The Problem

The public trusts you, science guy. But how will they know what you have to say? (Photo credit: vierdrie/stock.xchng)

I may be underestimating the people of the United Kingdom, but I doubt most of them are perusing the scientific literature on a regular basis to stay abreast of climate science findings. Generally, people learn about new scientific research when it is covered by news media. But these poll findings indicate that people don’t trust the stories that news media are publishing.

Here’s the problem: People may trust scientists, but they rarely interact with them directly. And scientists may work with reporters to broadcast their findings, but the public may not trust the resulting news story. What to do?

One option is for scientists to eliminate the middleman and reach out to the public directly, through a blog. This is increasingly common, but a lot of researchers don’t have the time, inclination or requisite communication skills to maintain a blog. What’s more, even if a scientist launches a blog, how can they let people know about it?

I don’t think there is a clear solution to this problem – yet. But I think it’s worth raising the question of how to connect the public to the scientists they trust, given that the public doesn’t particularly trust the traditional conduit of news media.

The Study

The findings of the April 3 paper in Public Understanding of Science, by researchers from the University of Arizona, American University, Yale University and George Mason University, are unlikely to surprise you. But they do drive home the message that scientists have an important role to play when it comes to communicating with the public about climate change.

The researchers surveyed a nationally representative sample of 2,497 adults in the U.S. in 2008 and surveyed 1,036 of them again in 2011. The study found that the more people consumed news from conservative media outlets (e.g., Fox News), the less certain they were that climate change was happening. “Conversely,” the paper states, “the more Americans use non-conservative media, the more certain they are that global warming is happening.” (Note: the paper uses the term “global warming,” which I don’t like, for a variety of reasons. I use the term “climate change.”) In short, the researchers found that “over time, people’s media use influences their beliefs about global warming.”

So where does trust come in? The paper points to previous research showing that in 2008, 83 percent of U.S. adults trusted scientists, at least somewhat, on issues related to climate change. That number dropped to 74 percent by 2010. The researchers suggest that this change occurred because, at least in part, “climate change contrarians” and conservative news media “have successfully raised questions about scientists in the public mind.” Conversely, the researchers say that consumption of news from non-conservative media increases trust in scientists.

This means that scientists have to make a decision.

Scientists: Are You In or Out?

Are you willing to get on the mic to talk about climate change? (Photo credit: cricava/stock.xchng)

Scientists can try to stay above the fray, communicating their findings solely through journal articles and conference presentations. Or, as outlined in the paper, scientists can “engage the public by providing them with understandable analysis and information about the causes, risks and potential solutions to climate change.” It’s one or the other. To quote the inimitable Geddy Lee, “You can choose not to decide; you still have made a choice.”

Scientists who stick exclusively to peer-reviewed journals and conferences will likely be viewed as politically neutral, which is good. But that stance also gives politicians, columnists and talking heads more freedom to spin scientific findings any way they want. Or, as the paper states, “climate contrarians” will have “free rein to redefine how the public thinks about climate scientists and their research.”

On the other hand, scientists who choose to take an active role in communicating with the public about climate change may be perceived as “political” or may even become targets of politicians or government officials. Nobody wants that.

Although there are risks associated with both courses of action, choosing to take an active role in science communication is at least a proactive course. It allows the scientist to make decisions about how, when and where to present his or her work. If you’re not being proactive, you’re being reactive – trying to defend yourself and your work from attacks that you may not have been expecting.

My Two Cents

In my opinion, it is important for scientists to be engaged in communication efforts. This approach is not risk-free, but it gives you more control over how your work will be perceived. There are challenges: How will you find the time? How do you (or should you) work with reporters? Where do you start?

Those are big questions. This entire blog, after all, is devoted to the issue of science communication. But here are a few general tips: be informative; be helpful; be convincing; and don’t be arrogant or patronizing. Most importantly, be involved. That’s a good start.

Note 1: There’s one qualifier here worth mentioning: the April 3 study doesn’t fully address the extent to which people’s views on climate change are influenced by the news media they consume, as opposed to those people merely seeking out news media that support the positions they already hold. I expect it’s a little of both and that it is a self-reinforcing feedback loop – but that’s my opinion, not a scientifically-researched observation.

Note 2: The paper is not open access. Citation below.

An attack on science? Media use, trust in scientists, and perceptions of global warming,” Public Understanding of Science, Jay D. Hmielowski, Lauren Feldman, Teresa A. Myers, Anthony Leiserowitz and Edward Maibach, DOI: 10.1177/0963662513480091


8 thoughts on “Scientists, Trust, Media and Climate Change

  1. Much of this problem started in college for scientists- many science majors only have time to hang out with other science majors. We all took the same classes and formed study groups with these same people. Many did not take classes that were not required for their major, as they were concerned about maintaining high marks in their courses. (I took tons of non-required classes, but I’m a bit of an outlier.)

    Many scientists are not used to … talking to folks who are not in their “club”, as it were.

    I don’t do blogging- I do Facebook. I know all of these people, and many of them are not scientists. I only have ~140 “friends”– my students, my parents, high school, college, grad school, and work buddies. Quite a number of my friends, however, have 400 to 700-odd people in their network.

    So, when (for example) one of my buddies who’s a Humanities major posted an anti-GMO article from a suspicious journal to be seen by approximately 700 people, I and a few others jumped on it and told them why this article is not to be trusted.

    This resulted in some good discussion about how not *all* GMOs are bad over the next few months. It lead to a better understanding of the idea that, yes, the pesticide resistant crops is likely a less than stellar idea; but that the GMO salmon were fine & had been properly tested.

    Blogging requires a certain amount of time and effort. Posting regularly is needed to ensure traffic to the website. Not all scientists have the time or energy for this. However, there are other social media options that can increase public eduction and awareness about science. Just by commenting on blogs or doing Twitter, scientists can increase the public’s knowledge about what, exactly, we do for a living.


  2. Agreed. I think it’s important to be engaged in conversation with people who are outside of the science community. I also think it’s important to avoid being condescending — there’s no quicker way to get people to stop listening.

    On another note, Caren Cooper pointed me toward her 2011 paper after seeing this post: (I think) the message it drives home is that promoting media literacy, or being a critical consumer of news, is as important (or more important) than promoting science literacy, or being a savvy consumer of scientific information, when it comes to affecting change in public opinion re: climate change. It’s certainly less daunting. The paper is well worth a read.


  3. Hear, Hear, Matt! This is a really clear post, hitting on all the right points.

    I agree – scientists can’t be the political equivalent of Switzerland. It’s great to know the data in and out, but what is the point if it can’t be applied, especially when it can affect the actual livelihoods of people and the planet.

    The issue, as Dr. Stelling pointed out, is that scientists are not necessarily encouraged, or even taught, how to engage with non-scientists. Furthermore, many are so bogged down with funding issues, that communicating to the broader population just isn’t on their radar (which is actually counterintuitive, since funding can be influenced by public perceptions).

    My office (science outreach) is working to give our scientists a platform to speak their piece, with little effort on their part, through blogging. It’s starting to catch on, but I should say that it isn’t the whole solution. There needs to be a stronger emphasis on the importance of science communication when folks BEGIN their scientific training.

    We can’t rely on the “let’s teach old dogs new tricks” philosophy. Instead, let’s include these lessons while the puppies are being house-trained.


  4. Good post Matt. I definitely agree (obviously) that scientists should be engaged in public outreach, but I think that many feel they don’t have the time or training. I’m very glad that there are outreach offices and communication training efforts in many universities to help make scientists more comfortable communicating with the public and to ease their way in doing so. I’d like to think that most of us aren’t arrogant about it, but if we are, I hope the outreach offices give us a good kick in the pants for it!


  5. I think it is wonderful when scientists engage in outreach — and I encourage it. However, I want to stress that I do *not* think it is a scientist’s responsibility. (You know this about me already, but others may not.)

    The fact is that many scientists don’t have the time, inclination or skill-set to engage in outreach efforts. I think the key is to find ways to support and facilitate outreach by scientists who are interested in engaging, rather than browbeating those who aren’t. In fact, this subject was one of the very first things I wrote about when I launched this blog:

    If a scientist has the desire, but not the skills, that’s where folks like me come in. We can work with researchers to develop those skills. But if there’s no desire to engage, there’s really no point.


  6. I applaud your post, Matt, and second your call to action. As you know from my comments on Twitter, though, I take issue with the framing in relation to trust. I made a Storify of that conversation here:

    To summarize, I agree that trust is important, helps get your foot in the door, etc., but I’m not sure all things flow from trust the way the framing of your post implies. Maybe ‘Who do I trust?’ is not really the question at the top of our decision-making tree. Maybe it’s ‘Who do I identify with?’ If so, maybe the appropriate call to action is something different.

    This fits nicely with Caren Cooper’s paper on media literacy. Maybe our time and effort would be better spent engaging people on media than on science. I can’t believe I just wrote that, but there you go.

    @Allison, Yes! There are many different ways for scientists to engage with non-scientists both online and offline, including conversations on social media and in the comment threads of blogs.

    @Jeanne I am with you but I also think Zen Faulkes makes some good points about the limitations of training as a solution:


  7. In my opinion (and this only an opinion), the problem with “who do I identify with” as opposed to “who do I trust” is twofold. First, I think it’s a variable that comes into play, but not the most important one. People often seek information from folks they don’t identify with. For example, some people may not identify with mechanics, but they probably seek information from mechanics when they have questions about cars. The same holds true for physicians on health issues, butchers/meat, etc. There are some exceptions, of course, but I think that — broadly speaking — that holds up. So, in my opinion, identifying with someone isn’t necessarily important to seeking information from them. That said, people are probably more likely to seek information from a mechanic/doctor/butcher who they identify with — but the “identify with” part isn’t necessary.

    Second, from a “what can we do about it” standpoint, focusing on “Who do I identify with” is a non-starter. Who someone identifies with is wrapped up in that person’s own sense of identity, which is a deeply ingrained, personal and complicated kettle of fish that I don’t think we want to tangle with.

    As for the need to promote media literacy, we are in agreement. I don’t know that it’s *more* important than scientific literacy, but it’s certainly incredibly important. And definitely not mutually exclusive.


  8. @Matt: Defiantly agree about not being condescending. There is no quicker why to turn off your audience than by assuming they are idiots simply because they do not know the “technobabble” of your field of expertise. (Whenever they started talking about science stuff on Star Trek TNG when I was a girl, my mother would just roll her eyes and say, “Don’t listen to that, it’s technobabble.” She’s a chemist.)

    People in general tend to interact mostly with three different professions that need certain skill levels for accreditation: medical doctors, lawyers, and psychologists. Many American TV shows feature these professions as example of “smart” people and the drama of their daily lives. (There’s also bankers, but they tend to have far fewer TV shows.) Hospital shows in particular are quite popular, since they make for exciting storytelling about heroic, beautiful MDs saving the lives of their worshipful patients.

    These are the folks that the public, as Matt puts it, “identifies with”. The public does not identify quite as much with me: my profession requires silent, careful, painstaking lab work followed by weeks to months of analysis to interpret the experimental results. Not exactly “good TV”- I personally find it thrilling, but I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. However, it is necessary work that needs to be performed to further the scientific endeavor.

    Due to the plethora and popularity of USA hospital TV dramas, I think that my country’s general public has conflated scientific work with medical work. They demanded their MDs do the impossible: be both a medical doctor and tend to the sick, and be a scientist who is in the lab all day discovering natural laws and “magic pills” that will make them better. Part of this is due to the fact that most people would rather interact with the kind, caring MDs than with lab scientists; who are perceived as being cold and remote intellectually. Some of this perception is just a misunderstanding of how highly intelligent introverts operate, and some is a true “PR” problem for the more …. arrogant scientists.

    Unfortunately, this puts a huge burden on the MDs; no one can be in two places at once. Patients suffer if their MDs are forced to split their time between tending to the sick and performing carefully planned and meticulously recorded experiments. American scientists must start recognizing the dire necessity of informing and educating the public about their work. Otherwise, they’ll vote to remove funding from your lab!


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