It’s not surprising that eventually, communicators and researchers would begin to challenge the faulty deficit model of science communication, although serious critique of the model did not gain traction until the early 1990s. These inquiries were spearheaded by the ethnographic community, which based its studies on questions regarding the ways social groups perceive authority and scientific expertise.
In 1992, sociologist Bryan Wynne published a paper investigating why sheep farmers living in the Chernobyl contamination zone continued working in the area despite warnings from government scientists. The deficit model would have blamed the mediators—the journalists and representatives that communicated the information to the public, in this case, the farmers. It may have even blamed the scientists, for poor research or explanation of their conclusions. Clearly, one of these two parties failed to transmit enough information to the farmers. The deficit model would have also blamed the farmers for their lack of education. The lack of education prohibited the farmers from making logical choices, and so many ended up staying in a dangerous area overflowing with radiation.
Wynne, however, did not follow this path. Instead, he blamed the farmers’ skepticism on something else: an intense distrust of both the government and the scientists. Apparently, the scientists had broadcast mistakes in the past, and the government had never been particularly supportive of its people, so the farmers felt incredibly threatened when both questionable sources told them to get up and abandon their livelihoods. In the end, the controversy was not created by a knowledge gap, but by human emotion. In the 1992 study, Wynne and his colleagues described a list of factors that the public may consider when judging scientific information, including criteria such as social and institutional affiliations of the scientists (if you dislike the government, you probably won’t like government scientists), have the scientists considered all available knowledge, and who will be responsible if the scientists are wrong.
This novel method of trying to understand a failure in science communication paved the way for the dialogue model, an imperfect but substantial improvement on the deficit model. The dialogue model calls for exactly what the name implies—dialogue between stakeholders.
By opening channels of discussion with the public, both mediators and scientists can receive feedback on their work.
This feedback could include criticism on the scientific and ethical validity of research, on the quality of translation by the mediator, or even whether the reader has any interest in the subject. Simply involving the public in any part of the process gives them a sense of importance in belonging, and they are more likely to feel as if they are contributing and their opinions have meaning. Certainly, there is a benefit to actively discussing a topic, rather than one party dominating the conversation as if they’re a narcissist on a bad date.
And so, research into the dialogue model has resulted in an increased determination to improve upon the traditional one-way model of science communication. The UK, Europe, and Canada have seen an increase in ‘town-meeting’ style conferences, where lay participants (the public) receive background materials before providing questions and recommendations to be addressed at the conference. Similar discussions have started to become organized in other countries as well, including in the US. Science café events and citizen science projects may be particularly appealing to many individuals, since they offer a more informal and relaxed setting that cannot always be found at a conference or during a polling session.
“Through these initiatives, studies find that participants not only learn directly about the technical aspects of the science involved, but perhaps more importantly, they also learn about the social, ethical, and economic implications of the scientific topic,” (Nisbet and Scheufele, 2009).
Context and involvement breeds confidence and motivation in the stakeholders involved in the discussion, especially for members of the public, who have been left out of an endless stream of scientific discoveries and the policy-making that sometimes follows. A dialogue between scientists, mediators, and the public may not provide a complete understanding of any particular scientific topic, but it certainly can’t hurt to include more perspectives.
Although the public is slowly gaining more ground in the realm of inclusive science research and communication, the brunt of experimentation and publishing still remains the duty of the scientist. The mediator still bears the (not necessarily unpleasant) burden of translating complex scientific concepts. To combat this, Wynne and other researchers argue that the dialogue between stakeholders should occur not only at the end product of research to obtain feedback, but also at the beginning and throughout the entire process.
Essentially, releasing a new nanotechnology, for example, and asking for feedback is better than simply telling people about it, but asking for opinions before studying and releasing the nanotechnology is arguably better, at least in the eyes of the public.
Involving lay people in every part of the research process allows them to voice their concerns early on, before decisions on risks and benefits are made over their heads. Mistakes and misinterpretations might be caught earlier, before it is too late and the experiment must be restarted, and improvements could be implemented sooner. Two heads are better than one.
A more intensive dialogue model also allows for a person to say ‘hey, I really like moths, could we maybe do some research about moths?’ A mediator could then step in and provide stories featuring research on lepidoptera (moths and butterflies), because that’s what the audience is interested in.
Of course, the dialogue model does have its flaws. There’s a limit on the knowledge gained from discussion on both sides of the coin. Additionally, while public opinions may boost research and communication, they are still opinions—beliefs that are not based in fact. Opinions cannot be proven right or wrong, and often an individual’s opinions may go against scientific evidence. As with the deficit model, there are far too many variables to consider when trying to figure out why a person thinks and acts a certain way. Allowing the public to direct every aspect of research is not always reasonable, nor is it cheap. Enticing the public toward involvement is often expensive and tedious, especially when fields compete against each other (who wants to help sort tiny flies when you can look at pictures of space?).
The progression of science communication toward the dialogue model shows great effort and improvement, but there’s still a long way to go.
Moth at Biosphere 2 photo by Nina Kolodij.
Bartock, L., & Rickard, Laura N. (2015). Walking the Talk? Examining the Practical Application of Models of Science Communication in Long-term Ecological Research Sites, ProQuest Dissertations and Theses.
Per Hetland. (2014). Models in Science Communication Policy. Nordic Journal of Science and Technology Studies, 2(2), 5-17.
Jamieson, K., Kahan, D., Scheufele, D., & Akin, H. (2017). Overview of the Science of Science Communication. In The Oxford Handbook of the Science of Science Communication (p. The Oxford Handbook of the Science of Science Communication, Chapter 3). Oxford University Press.
Nisbet, M., & Scheufele, D. (2009). What’s next for science communication? Promising directions and lingering distractions. American Journal of Botany, 96(10), 1767-1778.
Wynne, B. (1992). Misunderstood misunderstanding: Social identities and public uptake of science. Public Understanding of Science, 1(3), 281-304.