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 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.
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 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?
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