Scientists as communicators: A randomized experiment to assess public reactions to scientists’ social media communication along the science-advocacy continuum

Monday, 15 December 2014
John Kotcher, Emily Vraga, Teresa Myers, Neil Stenhouse, Connie Roser-Renouf and Edward Maibach, George Mason University Fairfax, Fairfax, VA, United States
The question of what type of role scientists, or experts more generally, should play in policy debates is a perennial point of discussion within the scientific community. It is often thought that communication containing some form of policy advocacy is likely to compromise the perceived credibility of the individual scientist engaged in such behavior, with the possibility that it may also harm the credibility of the scientific community more broadly. Rather than evaluating statements in a binary fashion as representing either pure objectivity or pure advocacy, one recent model proposes that public communication by scientists should instead be thought of as falling along a continuum based upon the extent of normative judgment implicit in a statement. This approach predicts that as the extent of normative judgment increases, it poses a relatively greater risk to a scientist’s perceived credibility. Though such a model is conceptually useful, little empirical social science research has systematically explored how individuals form judgments about different types of advocacy to examine common assumptions about the relative risks associated with such behaviors. In this presentation, we will report results from a national online experiment (N=1200) that examines audience responses to fictional social media posts written by either a climate scientist or a television weathercaster. Following the above model, the posts represent differing degrees of advocacy defined by the extent of normative judgment implicit in each statement. In instances where a specific policy is advocated, we examine whether participants’ reactions are shaped by the extent to which the policy mentioned is congruent with one’s political ideology. We hope this study will serve as an exemplar of applied science communication research that can begin to help inform scientists and other experts about the potential implications of different communication options they may choose from in deciding how to engage with policy.