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The legitimacy of environmental scientists in the public sphere

Gauchat, Gordon, O’Brien, Timothy, Mirosa, Oriol
Climatic change 2017 v.143 no.3-4 pp. 297-306
climate change, environmental policy, humans, models, news media, public opinion, scientists, society, surveys
Previous research has examined public perceptions of climate change, including opinions about the severity of its effects, whether it is human caused, the degree of its exaggeration in the news media, and the level of scientific consensus on the issue. This research has shown that public beliefs about each of these aspects of climate change are politically charged. What remains understudied are the sources of environmental scientists’ authority in the broader society and whether perceptions of environmental scientists themselves are polarized. Using data from the General Social Survey’s Science and Technology Module, this study fills this gap in knowledge by examining public perceptions of environmental scientists across several dimensions. We develop and formally test a theoretical model of the legitimacy of environmental scientists in the public sphere, as measured by public support for their influence on climate policy. Consistent with other research on public beliefs about climate change, we find that perceptions of environmental scientists are polarized across multiple measures. Moreover, while previous theory and research have emphasized beliefs about scientific consensus on climate change, we find that perceptions of scientists’ understanding of the issue and the integrity of their policy advice are each stronger predictors of scientists’ legitimacy in the public sphere.