The deficit model of science communication

Standard

This is central concept for science outreach. Some interactions today have led me to wonder whether we are all on the same page, so let me ask you:

Early in the days of this site, I started eavesdropping on conversations among experienced science communicators. I kept hearing over and over that we needed to kill “the deficit model” with fire. And then I did a bit of reading, and it was easy to see what they were seeing. For professional science communicators, it’s frustrating to see scientists who dabble in outreach using the deficit model, because they’re just getting it wrong and fouling the environment.

The deficit model of science communication is the idea that the target audience has gaps in their knowledge of science, and that through outreach, we can teach people and fill in these gaps. There’s a long history of research to show that this Deficit Model doesn’t work.

Seriously. Explaining science to people doesn’t lead to them understanding or accepting the science. It’s weird, right? People are irrational. Including us.

I’m not an academic expert in science communication. So when it comes to learning more about the deficit model more formally, I’ll point you to the academic literature. And wikipedia.

I see the irony that I’m here to spread word about the ineffectiveness of the deficit model by simply informing you about it with evidence. According to the deficit model, this isn’t expected to work for people who are simply browsing this blog periodically. So, what am I supposed to do?

Science communication experts tell us that we need to use narrative, and put the stories first that engage people with feelings. This is what the evidence tells us.

So if I’m really trying to convince you to drop the deficit model when you talk about science with non-scientists, I really should be doing this by telling a story. And I do have a great story for you! About how when I used the deficit model, it failed miserably! It’s a hilarious story! (Here’s the link to the post with the story about ants and snakes, which you presumably haven’t seen if you are new to small pond within the past five years).

I genuinely think that our understanding of the ineffectiveness of the deficit model is important for the future of our species, because collective action on climate change requires more of us to become passionate about switching to a clean energy economy. And we’re not going to get there by teaching climate science.

When you’re talking about climate change, feel free to mention the evidence, but more importantly, tell stories about how climate change has affected you and people you love, and find out how climate change is affecting the people you’re talking with, and tell that story. If you’re discussing the evidence, there are so many compelling stories about how people have uncovered evidence of climate change and how we are causing it, such as the folks behind the Keeling Curve. And the people being impacted by droughts and floods and fires and wars over access to water and hydrocarbons. For people to believe that rapid action on climate change is necessary, change must come from the heart, which means we’ve got to speak from the heart.

3 thoughts on “The deficit model of science communication

  1. Agree, I think the deficit model is still very dominant (despite your poll results!) and is the main driver behind a lot of public misunderstanding of science. Effective science communication is not easy & involves a lot more than just science, especially basic understanding of humanity, psychology, geopolitics etc. I think we have a long way to go to increase public understanding of how science is a process, not a series of facts, as well as the difference between consensus/global trends & individual studies, case in point the insect apocalypse narrative.

You can leave a comment anonymously, just don't give your name or email.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s