The role of social scientists in an age of anti-science

I began on 1 January 2016 in American Samoa on a grant from National Geographic. I would spend the next month on the archipelago some 5,000 miles southwest of Hawai’i to kickstart a much larger project that examines the cultural and societal impacts of sea level rise on the United States and its territories.

It doesn’t take much to notice that the sea is slowly eating away at the edges of American Samoa’s most populous island of Tutuila. In walking interviews I conducted, interviewees pointed to childhood beaches that have disappeared, coconut trees falling into the ocean and swaths of grass killed by seawater that often sloshes into parks and onto roadways.

As we have come to expect, climate change in the Pacific Islands is a visible and immediately recognisable reality. What I did not expect is that social scientists conducting fieldwork, much like the effects of climate change, are also an abnormality and immediately recognisable.

While many natural scientists live in and visit American Samoa to research its coral reefs, hydrology and bat colonies, most people have never worked with – or even heard of – a social scientist on the island.

And although government officials, residents and scientists listened to my project’s research aims with great interest and provided immense insights during semi-structured interviews, there was always trepidation when it came to understanding how qualitative research could be used to address the impacts of a warming world.

Natural vs social science

Being met with apprehension is nothing new to social scientists working in predominately natural science-based subject areas like climate change.

The perplexed but attentive stares I received in Samoan villages are no different than the looks that have greeted me at climate change gatherings since I entered this field five years ago. I’ve seen it while presenting to glaciologists at a climate observation conference in Tromsø, Norway, and when discussing permafrost thaw with geologists in Washington, DC.

The look silently reads: this work is fascinating and important, but I don’t quite comprehend how it connects to or augments my own science-based research.

Over the years, our research community has got better at accepting and acting on the benefits of scholastic inclusivity, in part with the help of multidisciplinary funding formulas. We now include social science research in the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Assessment Reports on climate change and the periodic National Climate Assessment.

But, in spite of our best efforts, multidisciplinarity in practice is too often seen as a mere checkbox in need of filling and not an asset to more comprehensive, significant research results. For anyone working on climate change, it is clear that an unambiguous divide still persists between the worlds of hard and soft science.

With the election of Donald Trump as United States president, the time has come for social scientists to bridge that divide.

An anti-science agenda

US President-elect Trump is, in a word, anti-science. He has called climate change a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese for economic advancement. He has appointed Scott Pruitt, an enthusiastic advocate for the deregulation of pollution, to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. And he has vowed to defund the vital research performed by NASA – research that helps to inform not just America’s climate change decisions, but decisions of countries across the world.

This scepticism of anthropogenic climate change is a view held by a minority of Americans – 30% as of 2015. But the anti-science rhetoric used by Donald Trump is influential, particularly when combined with policies aimed at disempowering scientists and dismantling science education. And with climate sceptics now holding the majority of appointed positions in the federal government, the number of Americans who don’t believe in climate change is poised to grow.

Poised, but not inevitable.

Researchers hold the power, and the responsibility, to prevent the growth of climate change denial under a Trump presidency by using all available tools – hard and soft.

Countering the American government’s newfound scientific scepticism will not be easy. It necessitates educating the general public and policy-makers by sharing compelling reasons to care about climate change. Fostering the type of genuine care needed means doing more than communicating hard scientific findings in layman’s terms and promoting science communication in STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – culture.

To make people care about climate change requires a truer and deeper engagement with the disciplines that study humans and human systems at a basic research level. Study results must not just be communicated effectively; the research design itself must be a hybrid model that engages the social and natural sciences.

For that to happen, social scientists must not shy away from opportunities to engage with and build upon natural science research. Rather than retreat into our own disciplines, we as political scientists, economists, sociologists, psychologists and human geographers must instead create and embrace ways to connect our work to hard climate science and modelling.

A story about people

Since my first trip to American Samoa a year ago, I’ve interviewed over a hundred coastal residents, from Alaska to Louisiana, to create a qualitative database on what stands to be lost to rising tides. If there is one takeaway message from my research, it is that climate change is ultimately a story about people – about how environmental changes are disrupting the lives, livelihoods and identities of families across planet Earth. Social scientists can put that human face on climate science.

In some areas, we are already doing this. Studies in resiliency engage social and natural scientists to determine how human, economic and ecological systems simultaneously cope with shocks and disturbances. And adaptation projects often combine the study of natural hazards with socio-economic dynamics and community culture to arrive at the best possible solution for that locality.

But we must and can do more.

Under a Trump administration, it is now more important than ever before for social scientists to be part of climate science research, communication and outreach efforts. In an era when science has been labelled problematic rather than enlightened, we in academia must reach across our own isle and engage the other side of research to make climate change a story about all of us – one we can all relate to, advocate for and act upon.

Victoria Herrmann is president and managing director of the Arctic Institute. In addition to managing the institute and board of directors, her research and writing focus on climate change, community adaptation, human development, and resource economies, with a particular focus on Arctic oil and gas. She is pursuing a PhD in political geography of the Arctic at the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom.