Between Scientists & Citizens

Post & Ramirez (2018): Scientists’ (mis)perceptions of press bias induce advocacy in response

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In my overarching project Unilateral Disarmament in the “War on Science” I claim that (4) cognitive biases lead scientists to faulty perceptions of attacks on science, and that (3) in response, scientists adopt communication strategies which, far from alleviating, tend to exacerbate the “war.”

This study by Post & Ramirez of German climate scientists provides some intriguing evidence for these two claims.

Senja Post & Natalia Ramirez. (2018). Politicized Science Communication: Predicting Scientists’ Acceptance of Overstatements by Their Knowledge Certainty, Media Perceptions, and Presumed Media Effects. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly.

Post & Ramirez is a strong contribution to a general move in scholarship well articulated in Scheufele (2014): instead of taking science communication on controversial topics as somehow distinct, it can be usefully studied through extending well-developed approaches in political communication (and I would add, my own field–rhetoric, the humanistic study of public discourse).  Here’s the framework of previous research P&R draws on:

  1. Hostile media perception is a thing:  “partisans usually perceive media coverage of their cause as biased against their views” (p. 3), even when it isn’t.
  2. Furthermore, partisans assume that this (perceived) hostile media coverage will be persuasive to key target audiences.
  3. They therefore respond with corrective actions, including attempts to remove the offending content from the public sphere or by renewed partisan persuasive activities themselves.

Applying this framework to scientists, P&R use scientists’ certainty about scientific knowledge as a measure of scientists’ partisanship, and consider overstatement of findings as scientists’ key corrective action.

P&R obtained survey results from 131 German climate scientists with tenured positions (a 40% response rate). The German case is interesting because the German media has rarely covered climate skepticism, although previous surveys have found German scientists very “sensitive” to perceived media missteps. P&R asked them:

  • What if anything would justify overstatements of scientific findings?
  • How certain is human causation of climate change?–with follow-ups asking for whether the recent “pause” affects this judgment.
  • Does the media downplay climate change?
  • How much does media coverage of climate change strengthen doubt/belief among politicians?

In a nice move, P&R also test for the hypothesis that scientists’ overclaims are a result instead of “mediatization”–their willingness to comply with press norms which demand overstatement, in order to get coverage for their ideas. Two additional sets of questions focused on scientists’ use of media (which would show familiarity) and their perceptions of the career impacts of media appearances.

Their findings:  Basically all scientists are confident of anthropogenic climate change, most have an accurate perceptions of press coverage. They are equivocal about public overstatements.

But–the most confident in AGW are also most likely to doubt the press, and the more likely they are to doubt the press, the more likely they are to believe that the perceived press distortions cause politicians to doubt. And the more worried they are about the political impacts, the more they are willing to justify overstatements of scientific findings before public audiences.

P&R also found mediatization to be correlated with willingness to justify overstatements, although insufficient to explain it. And they add two pages of careful limitations to their study.

So what? P&R explain modestly that scientists’ willingness to take overstatements as normatively appropriate communication strategies might “not be conducive” to good public deliberations on controversial issues:

Polarizing communication styles have been found to polarize conflicting parties and to heat up debates among the involved (Gervais, 2015). Among the uninvolved, a polarizing debate might cause misperceptions (Anderson, Brossard, Scheufele, Xenos, & Ladwig, 2014), turn people off the topic, or make them lose trust in politics (Mutz & Reese, 2007) or science (Hmielowski, Feldman, Myers, Leiserowitz, & Maibach, 2014). Such consequences likely impede transparent science communication and deliberative decision-making (p. 16).

I would also add:  advocacy (or partisanship, activism, politicization…) by scientists is often thought to be a matter of scientists mixing their “values” with their “facts.” So scientists who perceive themselves to be sticking with the “facts” also perceive themselves as avoiding advocacy. This study suggests that it is not value orientations but instead scientists’ confidence in the “facts”–their perceptions that alternative hypotheses should not even be considered–that drives them to legitimate for purposes of public debate a scientifically illegitimate overstatement of views.

Follow-up studies:

  • P&R close with a call to examine the same cycle of hostile media perceptions leading to legitimation of overstatements in the more controversy-saturated AGW debate in the US. Yes, please!
  • P&R note that hostile media perception can lead to “prevention effects”–“attempts to restrict the distribution of media contents, for example, by supporting censorship” (p. 6). However, in their study they focus only on “corrective actions,” like overstatements. It would be interesting to study whether scientific confidence also correlates with perceptions that it is legitimate to silence skeptics, e.g. through retraction or deligitimization campaigns.


Written by jeangoodwin

April 28, 2018 at 9:34 am

One Response

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  1. […] S., & Ramirez, N. (2018). Politicized Science Communication: Predicting Scientists’ Acceptance of Overstatements by Their Kn…. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 107769901876966–21. […]

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