Of the models devised to study the science of science communication, the deficit model has probably been around the longest. It also offers an easy solution to explain failures of communication, and this simplicity makes it desirable in a world where complications abound. Also known as the dissemination model, this method relies almost entirely on the idea that the public, as a cohesive entity, is unaware or educated about many topics—especially complex scientific topics. This makes sense, as it’s not possible for one person to know a lot about everything, let alone to expect the entire human population to know extensive information on every topic.
A good example is the public understanding of terms such as nano- or centi-; a lot of people have heard the words but couldn’t define them as prefixes with explicit meanings of one billionth or one one-hundredth, respectively.
This creates a significant ‘knowledge gap’ between the public and the professional scientific community, or a deficit (lack) of scientific literacy. Because of this, uneducated members of the public are unable to make informed, logical decisions concerning scientific issues, from medicine to climate change. For example, if you don’t know anything about sloths, how can you possibly make valid decisions about their husbandry and behaviors? According to the deficit model, in order to learn this information, an individual of the public must seek out and obtain some form of higher education. The person is then able to understand higher-level science and is qualified to make reasonable decisions on those topics.
Scientific research is based on extensive testing and logical conclusions based on the results of testing. Despite the inevitable uncertainty and error, science is based on facts. If the public doesn’t have all the facts, they can’t see the whole picture and make educated decisions, and because of this, opinions and decisions are as various and conflicting as there are individuals. The deficit model claims that educating citizens on scientific research will allow them to judge issues ‘like a scientist’ would judge, and this improved judgement will lead to a decrease in controversy. In short, if the public has the same facts and the same big picture, they will come to the same conclusions.
The deficit model boils down to this: if we just stuff them full of facts, they’ll all use the scientific method to come to the most reasonable conclusion in exactly the same way.
The question that comes up next, is where the public is going to find this cure-all of higher education. Scientists themselves are the first to admit that research papers and other peer-reviewed scientific literature does not usually make for a leisurely and enjoyable reading experience. Often, scientists may struggle with communicating their work with others outside their respective fields, without losing the depth and nuances of decades of research (they don’t want to ‘dumb it down’, per se). Besides, they’re busy making life-changing scientific discoveries. A mediator makes the job of translating science for the public a much simpler task. The deficit model delegates this duty to science journalists and occasionally other communicators, such as teachers and professors.
The mediator has their work cut out for them. Their sole purpose is to maintain the flow of information from point A (the scientist) to point B (the public), kind of like an intravenous drip into the bloodstream. Having gained access to the information, the public has received their higher education and controversy over prominent scientific issues should simply disappear. If controversy over some subject remains, then the culprit, according to the deficit model, must be the mediator. Perhaps they slacked on providing information to the public, either doing a poor job or missing some valuable information that may alter the public understanding and opinion. Having settled into the niche between scientist and the public, the mediator is the perfect scapegoat for a breakdown in communication. In reality, it’s fairly obvious that the process is not that simple.
This is arguably the most serious flaw in the deficit model. There are entirely too many variables to take into account when trying to study the motivation behind people’s decisions. Firstly, consider that people don’t always interpret information rationally or objectively.
A person’s current mood, the levels of stress and emotion they’re experiencing, whether they’re drinking enough water, and so many other factors contribute to choices made.
Important to note is the very human desire to be included; the opinions of peers make an enormous difference in an individual’s perspective. For example, if a man or woman is raised in a community that renounces the existence of sloths and instead considers them mythical beasts, there’s a chance that man or woman will also accept the mysticality of sloths despite information from credible sources stating otherwise.
Yet another factor rears its ugly head in the infinite combinations of an individual’s likes and dislikes. Some people just don’t like sloths (I know, how could they not), so no amount of cool science facts about sloths or even friends and family who adore the fuzzy critters can convince them to engage with or understand sloth research.
Additionally, science communicators are not ineffable either. Although media influence is undeniably powerful—employing methods of framing, agenda-setting, gatekeeping, etc.—there is a limit to the reach of every media outlet. Setting aside the ever-present issues of funding and manpower, small mistakes and errors in reporting (or just regurgitation of information) can snowball into catastrophic pockets of mis- and disinformation. The public’s trust in science is bound to decrease after every viral article about false or inaccurate science is debunked. Truthfully, there is so much information in the history of human beings that a mediator couldn’t possibly keep up with the duty of transmitting facts as required by the deficit model.
Assuming, hypothetically, that mediators could keep up with the incessant flow of information, recent studies show that it mostly likely doesn’t matter. More people, at least in the US, are pursuing higher education in the form of college and universities. The rise of the Internet has made the acquisition of information even easier, rendering the hardworking the mediator obsolete in the face of a Google search.
And yet, communicators and scientists alike tend to cling to the deficit model as though the survival of science depends on it. Perhaps this is part of the reason why the public is so viciously divided over today’s scientific hot topics. Fortunately, other models are slowly starting to gain more traction in the science communication community, that work towards modifying the deficit model and transitioning into more efficient and effective methods of communication.
Squidney the sloth (OdySea Aquarium) photo by Nina Kolodij.
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