Viewpoints

Environmental science is facing a public-trust crisis. Here’s how to fix it

The results are in. My colleagues and I are largely distrusted by the American public.

The non-partisan PEW Research Center reports that only 35 percent of Americans think environmental scientists provide fair and accurate information. Worse, only 17 percent thought environmental scientists were transparent about conflicts of interest.

And our nation’s distrust is especially partisan. Only 19 percent of Republican voters thought that environmental scientists provided “provide fair and accurate information all or most of the time” compared to 47 percent of Democrats. Just 40 percent of Republicans view environmental scientists favorably, compared to 70 percent of Democrats.

These are troubling statistics. But what are we doing wrong and what can be done?

First, experts in the environmental sciences too often fault the American public, especially Republican voters, by blaming their opinions and distrust on ignorance. That is understandably offensive.

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As a scientist I am trained to be skeptical, even distrusting, of current dogma. I should not, therefore, denigrate other peoples’ skepticism and distrust.

Second, the public knows that when a scientist is using their authority and power to advocate just one solution they are limiting and directing, rather than expanding and empowering, its choices. The public feels poorly served.

Last, and most significantly, too commonly experts think that the public would share their opinions if only they knew “the facts.” And so they advocate for particular environmental policies by preaching at the public, behaving like high-priests of the truth. How arrogant of us.

It is also naive. Because, actually, evidence from studies of science communication shows that when scientists attempt to convince others this way they cause the opposite to occur. People remonstrated with “the facts” hold more firmly to their own views, and so the debate becomes more polarized, not less.

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Psychologists call this the boomerang effect. It occurs because, intuitively, the public knows that our leading environmental controversies are not, fundamentally, debates over facts. They originate from our different values. Those pesky Republican voters are smart enough to know that scientists are being dishonest when they hide their own values behind the “facts” they use.

Environmental controversies, therefore, are resolved only by listening and speaking with each other about our different values until we find a few that we can agree and cooperate on. That is how trust is built. And with trust comes the power to negotiate still more difficult topics and negotiate solutions.

The environment supports our society and economy. It makes our freedoms possible and provides opportunities. All of us rely on it for our health and well-being. The American public depends on environmental scientists. And the public deserves better.

They deserve environmental scientists who are creative, describing for them all the possible solutions to our environmental crises. They deserve unrestrained access to our knowledge and data, and our assistance evaluating those alternative solutions. They deserve scientists that arrive at the negotiating table without prejudice and with humility and respect for the myriad values held by the diverse public they serve.

As environmental scientists, we must have our own opinions and values too of course and be honest about them, but they should be secondary to the greater public good.

We serve the American people best not by taking sides, but by informing others’ efforts to build trust among the great diversity of environmental values in our nation. Only then might we also regain the public’s trust.

Wayne Linklater is a professor and Environmental Studies chair at Sacramento State University.
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