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Does climate activism undermine scientific credibility?

A new study finds evidence that, at least amongst students, researchers’ involvement in climate crisis protests do not undermine their academic credibility.

23 April 2024

By Emily Reynolds

Increasingly, scientists and the public alike have expressed support for academics engaging in political advocacy, particularly when it comes to the climate crisis. But while breaching scientific neutrality to protest may feel like a moral imperative for some climate scientists, there are often risks to be considered. Amongst these risks, many worry that it could undercut their scientific credibility.

In a new study published in the journal Environmental Communication, Ronald Friedman of the University of Albany finds that this particular risk is low — at least when it comes to students. In fact, not only do the findings of this study suggest that disruptive action does not dent scientific credibility, in some cases, it appears to actually increase the impact of their message.

This investigation involved 303 undergraduate psychology students enrolled at a university in New York. Firstly, they were presented with an article which they were told had been written by an environmental scientist, outlining the destructive impact of climate change and, in particular, the potential for intense, dangerous heat waves caused by decreased wind speed.

Depending on which condition they were in, participants read one of three different endings. In the disruptive activism condition, they were told that the researcher had engaged in civil disobedience against fossil fuel companies, and that he had been arrested for his activism. In the non-disruptive activism condition, the researcher was said to have engaged in peaceful advocacy, such as fundraising for climate causes. And in the advocacy only condition, the researcher was simply said to "urge others to take drastic action," with no mention of his own political activity.

Across a series of questions and ratings, the participants reported that the researcher engaging in disruptive climate action increased their belief that changes in wind speed posed a significant risk to human life; significantly more so than the researchers described as fundraising or generically urging climate action. They also became significantly more worried about the personal impact of decreased wind speed when they read about the scientist taking political action, rather than simply urging them to act (though, interestingly, whether the researcher engaged in disruptive or non-disruptive political activity didn't make a difference here).

Engaging in political activity didn't make the scientist's research findings less credible, either. In fact, the credibility of his findings was rated as fairly standard across the board, suggesting neither action nor inaction made a difference to how his work was perceived.

However, despite feeling that the scientist was trustworthy and credible in relation to his political activity, participants did not seem to be particularly inspired after reading about his protests. Regardless of which ending they read, there was no difference in how likely they were to take action themselves.

While it is unclear why this was the case, the team suggests that future research could take into consideration the amount of climate action participants already take part in, as well as their beliefs about how efficient and useful their own actions would be. Establishing a base rate for their willingness to engage with climate action could also be useful.

Naturally, as participants were young college students, they may be more sympathetic towards both academics and activists than your average person. Similarly, they were largely left-leaning or politically moderate, which may make them more inclined to accept disruptive climate activism. Further research with a broader range of participants could garner different results, and may give a better idea of exactly who scientists gain or lose credibility with when they engage in activism.

It's also worth noting that gender might play a role here, too. The scientist described in this study had a traditionally male name — and, as the team points out, men are often considered to be more agentic and thus more likely to be successful scientists, leading women scientists to be evaluated more critically. "It is possible," the team writes, "that disruptive activism by a female scientist might not only fail to bolster, but indeed, might undermine her credibility by leading her to be perceived as incompetent, arrogant, and/or lacking self-control."

While further exploration is clearly needed to understand the range of dynamics at play, especially in non-student populations, these findings are at least encouraging for those on the fence about being more politically active.

Read the paper in full.