I came across an interesting paper by Dietram Scheufele on Thirty Years of science-society interfaces: What’s next, which focusses mostly on science communication. Although – as the article mentions – this isn’t the only possible science-society interface. Since I have an interest in this myself, I thought I might add some reflections of my own, but from the perspective of a scientist who is trying to communicate, rather than from the perspective of a scholar who studies the science-society interface.
In my experience there are, broadly speaking, two groups of scholars who focus on science communication. There are those who are actively trying to find ways to help scientists communicate more effectively. For example, the group at George Mason University, which included John Cook from Skeptical Science, with whom I’ve done some work. John has since moved to the Climate Change Communication Research hub at Monash University.
The other group are those who seem to regard their role as analysing the interface between science and society, critiquing how scientists engage publicly, and – in some sense – almost defining the appropriate manner in which scientists should interact with the broader public. The author of the above paper seems to belong more to this group, than to the former group.
Unfortunately, my interaction with the latter group of scholars has often been less than positive, which may of course reflect more on me than on them. However, I sometimes find the premise of their scholarship a little arrogant, as if they’re in some special position where they get to critique other scholars without seeming to recognise an equivalence between themselves and those they’re choosing to critique. There can also be a tendency to generalise about scientists, and to be rather dismissive of feedback coming from scientists. There are also some who have, in my view, actively hampered attempts to communicate science.
There can also be an element of irony in what is often presented by these scholars and this is somewhat evident in the article mentioned above. A common claim is that scientists who engage publicly suffer from what is referred to as deficit model thinking. The basic idea is that scientists think that science communication acts to fill some knowledge deficit which then leads to the public understanding the basic issue and accepting the policies that might derive from the scientific information. Of course, this is not how things work in reality. It is clearly much more complex, and there are many factors that infuence whether or not someone will accept a scientific position and what they would be willing to do even if they did.
However, it often seems that the scholars who criticise scientists for deficit model thinking end up doing something very similar themselves. They will imply that their field has developed a deep understanding of the science-society interface, that this is not being considered by scientists who engage publicly, and that if scientists did pay more attention to it, the interaction between scientists and society would be greatly improved. It may not be exactly deficit model thinking, but it seems pretty close. It’s almost as if these scholars don’t quite believe what their own scholarship seems to imply.
I also wanted to add something else about deficit model thinking. I’m a scientist who has spent quite a lot of time engaging in various forms of science communication. The reason I focus on trying to explain the “science” is that I enjoy doing so, I feel comfortable doing so, and because it allows me to focus on topics in which I think I have some relevant expertise. I’m not doing it because I think that all that needs to happen in order to solve various complex socio-political issues is for people to understand, and accept, the scientific information that I’m choosing to present. I’m well aware that it’s more more complex than that. I sometimes wonder if those who criticise scientists for deficit model thinking have really considered this from the perspective of those scientists who are choosing to engage publicly.
Okay, this is getting rather long, so I should wrap up. I do think that these are important issues and I do think that it is a topic that scholars should interrogate. However, if those who do so are essentially suggesting that scientists at the science-society interface should reflect on how they engage, then there may be merit in them doing some reflection themselves. To be fair, the article above does include some reflection, which is good to see. However, as I suspect such scholars would acknowledge, if your audience isn’t accepting your message, then maybe this indicates some issue with what you’re presenting, or how you’re doing so, rather than an indication that the audience is ignoring an obvious “truth”.