There can be a tendency, often amongst social scientists, to accuse scientists of deficit model thinking. The suggestion is that there are scientists who think hostility to science, or a lack of trust in science, is because of a lack of understanding, and that this can be addressed by simply reducing the information deficit. One issue is that it’s simply quite insulting; it’s essentially suggesting that many science communicators have not worked out something that is supposedly obvious to others. Another, though, is that I think the suggestion is simply wrong; I think many scientists who communicate publicly are well aware of this. They may (like me) start off naively thinking that people will trust them, and accept what they say, if they simply explain things carefully and clearly, but they’ll soon be disabused of any such notions. I doubt that many biologists think a careful explanation of evolution will somehow convince creationists, and I doubt that anyone who has tried to communicate climate science thinks that all that they need to do is somehow make their explanations clearer.
One issue is simply that many scientists regard science communication as of intrinsic value. That it is unlikely to convince some is not a reason to not do it; there are many who do want to engage with scientists and there is value in ensuring that scientific information is available in an accessible, and clear, format. Another is that scientists are constrained by the available evidence. Of course, thinking about how best to communicate the information, and being aware of the audience, is an important part of science communication. However, you’re still limited by the evidence available; you can’t make something up in order to be more convincing to a particular audience. So, even if science communication alone may be ineffective at reducing distrust in science, I think there is little that science communicators can do about this.
However, my impression is that some of the criticism is not simply that it’s ineffective; I think some actually object to what is being presented. They see science communicators as presenting scientific “truths” while ignoring many other important societal and cultural factors; not somehow taking our values into account. Well, the problem is that the goal of scientific research is to be unbiased and to not be influenced by societal factors, or our values. The goal of scientific research (in the physical science at least) is to try and understand a system that is real, and that is not influenced by our values; it’s a search for emergent scientific truths. Science communication therefore reflects this. This is not to say that science communication should not include uncertainties about the system being described; simply that what is presented should not really be influenced by societal factors, other than in terms of how to most effectively present/communicate the information.
If there are important societal factors that are not sufficiently prominent, then surely the solution is to publicly communicate this information, rather than critiquing those who probably do not see themselves as in a position to present this? If science communication is ineffective in some cases, and if the critics know how to be effective, then this should be easy. This makes me wonder if there isn’t some irony to this criticism. It’s almost as if science communication is actually too effective; it’s too prominent and others are finding it difficult to engage the public with what they regard as important.
However, I really don’t think that most scientists regard scientific information as somehow overriding value judgements; I’m sure they’re well aware that decisions we make will be influenced by the scientific information and by societal and cultural factors. However, what scientists do think is that our values will not influence physical reality. It seems to me that it must be possible for all this information to be communicated in a way that is complementary, rather than in conflict. Maybe that, however, is another example of my naivety coming through.
I should add that my understanding of this issue is constantly evolving, and so maybe the above isn’t a fair description of the situation. I’m happy to be corrected, or have aspects clarified, if anyone is willing to actually put the effort in.