From the Lab: Scientific Advocacy

In The Science of Speaking, I wrote, “Whereas our scientists and engineers often protest the pitch …” There’s an important, unanswered question here: why do our scientists and engineers protest?

There are several possible reasons for this.

First, many scientists and engineers believe that pitching is something they shouldn’t need to do—it’s their job to generate ideas, and someone else’s job (sales and marketing) to sell them. This belief is understandable, but ultimately wrong: as I note in the book, everyone engages in persuasive speaking, even if they don’t think about it in those terms.

Second, there is a significant subset of scientists who believe that pitching is something they shouldn’t do (note the deletion of the phrase “need to” here). They believe that scientists should stick to science and not get involved in advocacy. This is because they think that getting involved in advocacy will harm their credibility as scientists and perhaps even the credibility of the scientific community as a whole. Based on these assumptions, some have even gone so far as to say that science and advocacy are fundamentally incompatible.

Thankfully, a recent scientific study (published just this past weekend) thoroughly debunks this myth.

In a randomized controlled experiment, John Kotcher and his colleagues tested public reactions to six different advocacy statements made by a scientist—ranging from a purely informational statement to an endorsement of specific policies. Here’s what they found:

We found that perceived credibility of the communicating scientist was uniformly high in five of the six message conditions, suffering only when he advocated for a specific policy—building more nuclear power plants (although credibility did not suffer when advocating for a different specific policy—carbon dioxide limits at power plants). We also found no significant differences in trust in the broader climate science community between the six message conditions.

As the researchers conclude, “Our results suggest 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.”

Hopefully, this research will encourage more scientists to speak up and share not only their brilliant findings, but also their recommendations for how we can apply them!

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