Title: Threatening experts: Correlates of viewing scientists as a social threat
Author(s) and Year: Sedona Chinn, Ariel Hasell, Jessica Roden, Brianna Zichettella; July 2023
Journal: Public Understanding of Science (closed access)
TL;DR: This study identifies Republicans and Evangelicals as two groups who are likely to view scientists as a threat. Perceiving science as a threat was also associated with holding inaccurate science beliefs, supporting the exclusion of scientists from policy-making, and favoring retributive actions toward scientists.
Why I chose this paper: While I identify as a liberal, I grew up in a conservative, religious family. This study really spoke to my experiences and interactions with different family members and provided valuable context into who is likely to view my work as a threat. While the results can be frustrating, I think they provide a valuable first step into understanding how we can be better science communicators and engage audiences who normally wouldn’t look to science.
As science communicators, we are aware of the value and benefits of communicating science to different communities and audiences. Communicating science is important to improve the public’s general understanding of science and help inform decision making by citizens, policymakers, and different audiences. But, the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted how science has been increasingly politicized. This negatively impacts how science is interpreted by different audiences and how scientists are treated. While scientists might be seen as allies to some, many others see scientists as a threat. Women and climate scientists are especially at risk of harassment and receiving death threats and online attacks because of their work.
It is important to acknowledge how our social group influences our attitudes toward science. Evidence suggests that Republicans and Democrats see scientific issues as either aligning or not aligning with their social group’s beliefs. Politicization has resulted in these groups sharing fewer cultural and social beliefs with each other and more strongly following in-group behaviors and ideologies. This politicization has also led to disdain and a perception of threat from those outside a social group. When it comes to scientists, this means that groups who might see science as a threat to their worldview or values are more likely to see scientists as a threat.
So what can we do to fix this? A first step could be to better understand which audiences see science as a threat. That is exactly what researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Michigan sought to do.
Between December 2020 and March 2021 a two wave survey, a survey where you question the same respondents at 2 different time points, was conducted using YouGov, an online research group that conducts opinion surveys. There were a total of 1,412 respondents for Wave 1 and 975 for Wave 2. The survey focused on the following measures:
Perceived threat from scientists,
Traditional news media exposure,
Social media uses,
Controversial scientific beliefs,
Support for excluding scientists in policy-making,
Support for retributive actions, and
Distrust of science.
Survey questions consisted of likert scales, a survey scale that captures responses from one extreme attitude to another, to assess how strongly respondents felt about the 7 measures examined. Ordinary least squares regression, a technique used to evaluate the relationship between two variables, was used to assess associations between the different measures.
The researchers developed a series of hypotheses to explore which groups are more likely to perceive scientists as a threat. The hypotheses explore religious affiliation and political ideology and how those are associated with their view on scientists. The researchers also hypothesized that perceptions of threat from scientists will be negatively associated with holding accurate beliefs about controversial science, and positively associated with supporting to exclude scientists from policy-making and with retributive actions against scientists.
In addition, the researchers explored how social media use and news consumption from different sources impacted perceived threat from scientists.
The survey methods uncovered associations between religious affiliation and political ideology with the perceived degree of threat from scientists. Survey outcomes highlight which groups are more likely to view scientists as a threat.
Survey results indicate that both political affiliation and identifying as an Evangelical were strong predictors for perceiving scientists as a threat. This translates to both Republicans and Evangelicals looking at scientists as a threat. Viewing scientists as a threat was also associated with not holding accurate beliefs about controversial science, supporting the exclusion of scientists from policy-making, and seeking retributive actions, or punishments, against scientists. Threat perception was also associated more with wanting to exclude scientists from policy-making and favoring retributive actions than distrust of science.
When it comes to news consumption, having a viewing preference for CNN and national television news were associated with less threat perception of scientists, while viewing FOX News was associated with more threat perception. Use of social media had no link to viewing scientists as threats.
This is one of the first studies to explore who views scientists as a social threat. Science communicators should keep these results in mind when engaging with audiences who are likely to view science as a threat. The study results can help inform how scicommers can collaborate with Republicans and Evangelicals, how we approach science education and policy ventures, and how we share information on potentially controversial subjects and through which medium. It is of worth to note that while these groups might view scientists as a threat and distrust their efforts, science communicators can serve as a humble and empathetic bridge to explore the best ways to co-create with these audiences. While it is easy to look to these groups as adversaries, we should steer clear from falling in this trap. Even if the study results are not entirely optimistic, they do provide a starting point from which we can continue to explore science communication and engagement.
Edited by: Caroline Cencer and Niveen AbiGhannam
Cover image credit: Marcus Spiske