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.