January 17, 2017 / Ed Rutkowski

Talking about Science: Goodbye—and Good Riddance—to the Deficit Model

For years, a simple paradigm has dominated the field of science communication. This paradigm is called the “deficit model,” and while its name may be unfamiliar, many will recognize its underlying theory. According to the deficit model, inadequate information is the main reason why scientific claims and policies are not broadly supported by the public. If only people understood the facts, the deficit model says, then they would accept the scientific consensus on [insert your favorite science-related controversy].

The deficit model has a lot going for it. It makes intuitive sense, and its implications are clear: if you want to increase acceptance of a scientific consensus, you need to devote your energies to an effective explanation of facts.

Unfortunately, the deficit model also happens to be completely wrong—or so says a new report, Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda, from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. On Tuesday, Jan. 10, the National Academies Committee on the Science of Science Communication, which authored the report, hosted a public discussion of their findings in Washington, DC. Panelists included five members of the committee and four professional science communicators. The event was broadcast live on the web.

The committee chair, Alan Leshner, CEO emeritus of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, brought the report’s main themes into focus. “Research shows the issues in communicating science are not just about communicating the science itself,” Leshner said. Contrary to the deficit model, better communication of scientific findings does not alone ensure that people will understand or listen to them. “People make decisions based on a variety of things,” Leshner said, “and rarely on the basis of science alone.”

“Many scientists believe that facts alone are persuasive,” added committee member William Hallman of Rutgers University. “The research in the report, as well as experience, suggest that this isn’t a useful approach.”

This is where the committee’s work converges with recent dialogues within the industrial hygiene profession. For example, at the AIHA Fall Conference last October, Fred Boelter, CIH, PE, BCEE, FAIHA, gave a presentation called “Risk Beyond Occupational Exposure” that, I imagine, the Science Communication Committee would have greeted with nods of recognition and approval. “People make decisions based on their beliefs,” not based on science, Boelter said, and for that reason, “if we haven’t established trust, our communication is going to fall significantly short.”

Establishing trust is more difficult than ever, now that most people get their news from social networks. Science communicators find themselves competing with these very networks for attention and, yes, trust, even when—or especially when—they are riddled with “fake news.”

While more research is needed to identify the specific techniques best suited for conveying scientific information to non-scientists, the National Academies panel suggested that science communicators can take a page from their opponents’ playbook. “We have to learn from the enemy,” said Laura Helmuth, a science writer for the Washington Post. “Fake news has always been with us, but it’s getting more powerful. We have to learn from it and find out why it’s so compelling.”

What can science communicators learn from fake news? “People cling to information that is entertaining and affirms their worldview,” Helmuth said. “We need stories that do that.”

“We need to recognize that effective science communication requires art as much as science,” added David Herring of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Program Office. “We need to learn how to inspire and entertain. We need to recognize that science doesn’t trump all other ways of knowing.”

What techniques have you used to communicate effectively with workers about risk, science, health, or safety? Share your stories in the comments.

To purchase a print version of Communicating Science Effectively: A Research Agenda or download a free PDF, visit the website of the National Academies Press​.

Ed Rutkowski

Ed Rutkowski is editor-in-chief of The Synergist.​


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