The Deficit model vs the Asset model

I had an interesting discussion on Twitter today with Brigitte Nerlich about the Deficit model and the Asset model of science communication. To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure what these terms meant when I first starting discussing them, so maybe I should give all this a little more thought and consideration before commenting. This, however, is simply a blog and these are just what I’ve been considering since the discussion, so my views are not fully formed and there could be aspects that I misunderstand. You’re of course welcome to take all this with a pinch of salt (which is always your right) or to comment below to present your own views. I’ll also do my best to be less curt than I was with some commentators last night. I was tired and it was late 🙂

Anyway, my understanding is that there are two (or at least two) ways in which one could imagine communicating science to the public/policy makers. In one scenario you assume that the general public/policy makers know very little and your job is to simply tell them about the science and what we currently understand (deficit model). They public don’t know enough to really make up their own mind and the scientist’s role is to explain the current status. The other is that one assumes that the general public/policy makers are well-educated and may actually have some prior knowledge or understanding about this science area (asset model). In this scenario the general public/policy makers can play a more prominent role in the engagement and rather than you simply telling them about the science, you can actually go into more detail and engage more thoroughly. In the asset model one could argue that the scientist is presenting information that the public can assess. You may act to try and convince them of the strength (or not) of the evidence, but they have sufficient knowledge to make some assessment on their own. I don’t know if I’ve explained these properly or fully, but I believe that is the general idea.

There is, however, one subtlety that people either aren’t making clear, or aren’t recognising (in my opinion at least). In neither the deficit model not the asset model are we considering a dialogue between equals. When communicating science to the public/policy makers, it is almost always an expert engaging with lay people. Some may be very well educated and knowledgeable, but they’re still not experts in this field. An impression I’m getting from some recent reading about science communication is that some think science communication involves the possibility that some intelligent lay person might say something that could cause the scientist to re-evaluate their scientific views. That it’s somehow a two-way street. Although possible, it is vanishingly small and so considering this, or recommending this, seems completely unrealistic.

I should be careful though. I’m not referring to the public’s view about policy, or their opinions about how science should be communicated. There are certainly areas where scientists could learn from the public. Maybe they don’t realise what the public is concerned about and need to put more effort into explaining an aspect that hasn’t been explained properly. I’m talking, here, only about the science and how the scientific evidence has been interpreted. That’s what the scientists are experts at and expecting them to spend time considering the scientific views of educated lay-people just seems like a waste of time. There may be exceptions, but in general, I would regard this as true.

There’s also a related issue. How much effort should one put into convincing an educated lay person that they’re wrong if they do present an idea that’s demonstably incorrect. Well, it probably depends on the scale of the error. I sometimes encounter people who tell me that they’ve proven that Einstein’s theories are wrong. Well, unfortunately, I typically avoid engaging. I don’t have the time or the energy to teach someone all of undergraduate physics so as to convince them that their calculation is probably wrong. So scientists can’t be expected to engage with and convince everyone, they can only do the best that they can, given the time and the resources available.

So, how does this relate to communicating climate science. Well, in my limited experience of discussions about climate science, it suffers – in my opinion – from a rather serious problem. There is clearly of group of people engaged in the debate who are not professional climate scientists, but who believe that they have knowledge of climate science – they have an asset, let’s say. The problem is that what they think they know is typically wrong. Now, I’m not talking about people who are genuinely sceptical and would like to know more about what we understand. There are a large number of aspects of climate science about which it is perfectly reasonable to be sceptical. I’m talking about people who think there is something fundamentally wrong with the field of climate science and dismiss most mainstream climate science. Normally one could ignore such people, but these aren’t simply members of the public. This group includes politicians, people in the media, and others who have a prominent voice. They can’t be ignored, because their views are being heard.

So, in a sense the communication of climate science is neither being done via the deficit model nor the asset model. The model, at the moment, seems to be a negative equity model. There are those who’s views are not only nonsense, but who are able to influence others so as to damage scientists’ ability to communicate the actual science effectively. So, my opinion about communicating climate science – for what it’s worth – is that we shouldn’t be spending time (at the moment) trying to convince climate scientists to engage differently (as some seem to be doing); we should start by convincing the public, the media and policy makers that if you want to know about climate science, you should talk to climate scientists. Those with alternative views are welcome to air them. It’s a free world. However, if you really want to know about our current understanding of climate science, start talking to experts rather than pundits. Until we can get journalists, the general public and policy makers to recognise that climate scientists are the experts in climate science, I can’t really see how we can make progress in communicating climate science effectively.

So, as I said at the beginning, this is simply something that I’ve been thinking about this afternoon and so there may be aspects I don’t understand or subtleties that I’ve overlooked. I also apologise if anyone thinks I am unfairly characterising them. I have no objection to people being sceptical about science and wanting to know more. However, noone is really going to learn more if we don’t start trusting climate scientists and recognising that they are the experts we should be turning to if we want to learn more about the current understanding of climate science. Until we do this, we’re always going to be influenced by those who (knowingly or not) are misleading us with what they might think is knowledge but which, in reality, is nonsense.

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20 Responses to The Deficit model vs the Asset model

  1. Rachel says:

    I agree with you in that if you want to know more about climate science then you should seek information from a climate scientist, but how do you convince those members of the public, who prefer the views of Anthony Watts or James Delingpole, to do this?

  2. Exactly, I never looked at the science of communication either, but both models sound like deficit models to me, in the sense that they are missing many likely important factors. They seem to be assuming one to one communication and that both participants are interested in learning.

    I would expect that a lot changes when you consider that someone may not be interested in learning more, that people may not like the consequences, that people are part of networks and many find good relations much more important as abstract facts, and finally that many more people are trying to communicate and that as Wotts states, not everyone communicates to inform.

    In communication attempts at WUWT, no matter how polite, I never had the feeling someone wanted to understand a part of the science better. (At the Blackboard this is the case for some.) I am sure, I will never convince Anthony Watts, if he is to come to reason then it would be because his family, friends and neighbours no longer believe his stuff.

    As an asides. I enjoyed the discussions around advocacy a lot, as there were many different views and aspects, but most participants were interested in understanding the problem better and used arguments. Refreshing. Unfortunately.

  3. Wott,

    You might like Storify to create stories out of tweets. I have the story of Foxgoose and the Car in the oven.

    Also note that if you can insert URLs of specific tweets in WP comments.

    You might wish to look around Herschel’s discovery of Uranus or the debates around the planethood of Pluto if you wish to find astronomical hurly burlies, as I think was the twitting challenge.

  4. I haven’t tried storify. Astronomy was indeed the example, but I hadn’t considered comparing what might have happened in the past with respect to astronomy with what’s happening today in climate science. Might be interesting though 🙂

  5. I think the subtle point I was trying to make in the post, and maybe not making it clearly, is that there appear to be some (science communicators for example) who are suggesting that climate scientists should work to improve their reputation and should work to engage more with sceptics. My current view is that these science communicators would be doing us a better service if they put some effort into convincing the media and policy makers to stop listening to sceptics and start listening to climate scientists, rather than telling climate scientists to do a better job of communicating.

  6. BBD says:

    Tell it from the mountaintops. Repeatedly. It stands repetition.

  7. dana1981 says:

    “how do you convince those members of the public, who prefer the views of Anthony Watts or James Delingpole, to do this?”

    To be honest, I don’t think you do. I think you just write them off as the biased fringe minority and work on convincing the majority of folks who are at least open-minded.

  8. Indeed, and that’s why I’m starting to think that those involved in science communication should be spending their time convincing the public and policy makers to start listening to climate scientists, rather than trying to get climate scientists to communicate better with the public and policy makers. That’s not to say that scientists couldn’t improve their communication skills, simply that until they’re taken seriously that’s not really the main problem.

  9. Wotts, and that includes you. 🙂 Every time you link to WUWT and do not include the nofollow tag, you tell Google that WUWT is a great resource and that makes the voice of the fake sceptics louder.

  10. lorne50 says:

    Yes open minded just like you right dana.

  11. Victor, I was kind of unaware of that. Having said that, I think I decided early on that if I was to critique what was said on WUWT, I should at least link to the posts and, given, that it’s wordpress, they would know I had done so and could chose to allow my link to appear in their comment stream. Given that they’ve never chosen to actually do that, maybe the nofollow tag is now appropriate 🙂

  12. lorne50, your point is?

  13. chris says:

    Personally I think there is a bit of a problem with sociological/social policy approaches to science communication which the concepts “deficit model” and “asset model” exemplify. This is that these terms and concepts become themselves the subject of enquiry and debate for sociologists who may advocate for their preferred model, while taking a rather cavalier attitude to the scientific realities (even to the point of supporting contributions by individuals known objectively to misrepresent the science if these may be easily accommodated within their model).

    For example on the Dana Nuccitelli Uni Nottingham thread a few days ago I suggested to Ben Pile what I considered to be fundamental problems of agenda-led science misrepresentation using past examples of the science on ciggie smoking, aspirin-taking in children wrt Reyes syndrome etc., where misrepresentation was seriously harmful. Mr. Pile asserted that I was assuming the “deficit model” and proceeded to lecture about why that is not an appropriate model for considering these issues.

    I wasn’t assuming a “model” at all. I was referring to something <specific which is the reality that misrepresenting science on specific issues can be damaging. It’s not a sociological issue about which model provides a suitable context to address these issues! If the science on specific subjects (smoking, MMR jabs, climate change etc.) is misrepresented the public is cheated and may be harmed in objectively identifiable ways.

  14. The nofollow tag would not influence backlinks as far as I know.

    The tag is automatically added to comments on most blogging platforms to combat spam comments.

  15. > I wasn’t assuming a “model” at all.

    This is a common trick, chris. As far as I can tell, it fulfills two important functions.

    First, it deflects the discussion on a theme the trickster, in this case Mr. Pile, needs to inject to gain the upper hand. Second, it burdens his adversary, in this case you, chris, with the gruesome task of either dissociating yourself from what the trickster attacks, or discussing how these attacks are baseless. In either cases, you end up falling for the trickster’s bait.

    The main weakness of this attack is that it begs the question. Notice how Mr. Pile simply asserted that the linear model was assumed. This has not been shown. It rests on an empty, but vigorous assertion.

    I suggest, as a general rule, to reject the accusation and to remind the trickster that this does not provide a relevant answer to the point you raised. This is efficient, as you don’t waste time talking about a topic that is not yours, you hammer your main point, and you expose the trickster as someone who tried to trick the audience by changing the subject while waving his arms.

    A wise trickster will not waste any time trying to show why he really thinks chris, in this case, falls into the linear model trap. The linear model meme is crap and should be called directional anyway. The trickster should use another trick on the next comment. If that does not suffice, you can even remind the audience of this trick, for instance by asking your trickster to acknowledge that he tried to trick you.


    When the trickster recognizes that he can’t distract you from your point, he should end up ignoring you. Exposing his tricks costs him resources and INTEGRITY ™. His schtick rests on making you wasting your time defending yourself, not him wasting time defending.

    But it may happen that the trickster will not back down if exposed more clearly, e.g.

    [Leo Hickman] So who is paying Mr Pile for his contracted work? Mr Bloom out of his own personal pocket? What has happened in the two weeks since Mr Pile emailed me? Has his contract work been terminated? Or is there some other explanation? Why was Mr Bloom planning to attend this local public hearing in Devon, when that is not within his MEP constituency of Yorkshire and the Humber?

    During the overall interchange, one should expect insults. Insults could become a measure of how the debate goes. At the end, all of these could be returned to its expeditor.

    When I did so at Mr. Pile’s, he deleted the 15 relevant comments and revealed informations about my IP.


    Please bear in mind that Mr. Pile’s pet theme is about “framing debate”. We should expect that Mr. Pile has some know how. Reading his interventions at Warren’s go beyond these expectations.

    As long as commenters keep their heads up and the eye on the puck, all should be well.

  16. Rachel says:

    I’ve been thinking a bit about this and it seems intuitive to me that if you want to know more about a particular field, then you would ask someone who works in the field. You have a problem though in climate science because there are climate scientists who recommend the opposite. Judith Curry for instance, writes in her thread on ocean acidification, that she prefers the views of someone who does not work in the field of ocean acidification over someone who does –, when trying to establish the impact of ocean acidification on ocean ecosystems.

    So yes, of course the public should be persuaded to listen to climate scientists, but it’s not so easy when some of the climate scientists themselves are recommending the public listen to the views of people who are not scientists or specialists in their field over those who are.

  17. That’s certainly an issue and is one reason why the consensus project was important – IMO. It was illustrating that Judith Curry, Roy Spencer, Richard Lindzen are in the minority. Ideally the media would start to recognise this and actually start talking to scientists who more properly represent the current scientific understanding of the field. Of course, media people can appear to be basing their views on science by quoting Curry, Spencer, Lindzen (as Andrew Neil did in his response to Dana), but then I would argue that they’re then illustrating their own bias. I guess, then, that you have a point. The existence of a small number of active scientists who disagree with the consensus view does allow for this minority view to get what would be regarded as valid exposure. Hence, why I think the real message to be promoting is not that climate scientists should start engaging with known sceptics, but that the public, policy makers and the media should start talking to more climate scientists so as to get a better sense of what the actual consensus view is.

  18. Pingback: They’re coming for climate scientists! | …and Then There's Physics

  19. Jim Stuttard says:

    I think these are both monological models. t’s the same problem as helping racially-frightened people to change. There’s plenty of research suggesting that if they’re, as we used to call it, “workable with” then the most effective and affective technique is to ask what they think and why and then listen. Failure to start with where people are coming from was one of the reasons for the notorious finding that some MIT science graduates couldn’t even wire a light bulb circuit.

  20. Jim,
    The point I’m trying to make, though, is that the role of scientists is to do research and to communicate their findings (to their colleagues, the public, and to policy makers). Their role is not to decide whether or not people should accept their findings, and – so – they should not really be being criticised when it is clear that some are choosing not to do so. If society thinks that there are some things that should be accepted, or that maybe some people should be encouraged to change their attitudes, that’s a decision for politicians, not researchers.

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