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Recent study of scientists and advocacy overlooks gender and racial biases

With the April 22 March for Science in Washington, DC quickly approaching and the current anti-scientific stance of the American government, the scientific community is abuzz with debate over what role scientists should play in activism. In the midst of these contentious times comes a new paper published in the journal Environmental Communication from George Mason University’s John Kotcher and a team of researchers from University of Wisconsin-Madison, which sought to answer whether advocacy impacts the credibility of climate scientists. While the study is an important step toward answering this question, I believe it raises more questions than it answers.

Media coverage of this study was widespread but often irresponsible. If one judged from headlines alone, it would be easy to think it showed that scientists are free to engage in whatever activism that they like, with no consequences. In reality, the study showed that a fictional expert in climate-related work, Dave Wilson, Ph.D. (either a climate scientist or a chief meteorologist at a weather station, depending on the response group) did not lose credibility when he made a public statement about responding to the threats caused by climate change (except when he advocated for nuclear power plants as an alternative energy source). Despite what many headlines suggested, the study does not show that scientists can use their platform to support any controversial political stances without consequences.

But perhaps more important than what this study revealed is what it didn’t. Study participants were introduced to Dr. Wilson through a short biographical description, followed by a fictional Facebook post. Dr. Wilson’s picture clearly showed an older white male. So are these results really all that surprising? In my opinion, the study would have been much more revealing if it included at least one more expert in addition to Dr. Wilson, ideally more (women, people of different races, or both), and the researchers examined how the public’s perception of the scientists’ credibility differed.

Also, I have to wonder if the results of this experiment would hold for younger scientists and graduate students like myself. If I were to take a public advocacy position about climate change (I haven’t made a clear statement, but I believe my feelings on the matter are pretty clear via my Twitter account), would my credibility change in the eyes of the general public? What role would age play in the results? Would older adults be less likely to accept a statement about climate change from someone younger than them?

To be fair, at this point in my early career, I don’t think the general public knows I exist, so perhaps it would be more pertinent to ask if the study’s findings would be upheld within the academic community itself. Would taking a role in climate advocacy affect my ability to land a tenured-track faculty position in the future? While it’s true that some universities encourage professors to take an active public stance on how their science should be construed, there are still a number of researchers at respected universities shouting from the rooftops that scientists have a duty to remain impartial.

The authors of this study did briefly mention in their discussion that their results might have been different if the fictional scientist was younger or from a minority group. They also recognized that they didn’t test how scientists feel about another scientist participating in climate advocacy. That said, gender was only mentioned in reference to the study participants. The complete omission of gender as a potential factor in how Dr. Wilson’s statements were perceived is surprising and disappointing. Studies have shown that people are less likely to trust the work of women scientists based solely on their gender, within the classroom and beyond.

To me, the effect of age, gender and race on how the public perceives scientists when they engage in public advocacy is where the real story lies. An older white male like the fictional Dr. Wilson is the least likely person to be judged harshly for his public statements, and is therefore relatively safe compared to marginalized groups within the scientific community. In the context of the current anti-science political climate within the United States, and calls for inclusivity in the March for Science and other science advocacy, these issues have never been more pertinent. I hope future research will explore these questions more thoroughly and give them the urgent attention they deserve.

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Filed under Diversity in Science