August 4, 2013, by Brigitte Nerlich

Science communication: From filling deficits to appreciating assets

I recently read a blog post on science communication by John Timmer and a response to this post by Peter Broks, which made me think about (a) the public understanding of the ‘deficit model’ and (b) how one can get from saying science communication should be engaging in the ‘co-creation’ of meaning (Broks) to giving some much wanted advice on how that could be done, that is, how to improve science communication (Timmer). In the following I’ll briefly say something about (a), but will be focusing on (b). (The following reflections were also inspired by a twitter conversation this morning with @bevgibbs @katyroach @wottsupwiththat)

The deficit model of science communication

The concept of the ‘deficit model’ (of the public understanding of science/science communication) is well established in the social sciences, but it doesn’t seem to travel well across disciplines. I think a good summary of the deficit model and a critique of the model, which might resonate with some science communicators, science writers and science journalists, can be found in this article by David Dickson, who, tragically, has just died. The term ‘deficit model’ was coined by social scientists criticising a rather naive view that making science more public in the sense of transferring scientific knowledge to ‘the public’ (assumed to be lacking that scientific knowledge, i.e. having a knowledge ‘deficit’) might increase public acceptance of science and increase public trust in science.

In terms of public (mis)understandings of the deficit model, it might be worth going through the comments on Timmer’s blog and see what people say about it, but I won’t do that here. Here is only one example: “The deficit model seems to be a scientists way of casting aspersions on the illiterate masses“ (which was meant ironically I think). The public understanding of the deficit model would be a topic for another blog.

Beyond deficit, code and conduit models of communication

In his response to Timmer, Broks points out that, pace the deficit model, (science) communication is not a one-way transfer of knowledge from a full to an empty head, but rather a collaborative and always contextual construction of meaning. This view of communication is linked not only to a social science critique of the deficit model (which began in the 1990s) but also to a well-established linguistic critique of older models of communication which had their roots in information theory. It all started with Michael Reddy’s 1970s critique of the ‘conduit metaphor’ of communication and Roy Harris’s 1980s critique of the ‘code model’ or ‘translational model’ of communication’ which he called ‘telementation’. Instead Harris advocated an integrational or creative approach to communication. He also pinpointed one of the reasons why the shift from the old to the new model of communication may be difficult, and that is acknowledging the fundamental indeterminacy of communication and meaning.

So, we have a social science critique of science communication called (perhaps confusingly) the ‘deficit model’ and an older linguistic critique of communication as knowledge transfer in general. It’s a shame that the two traditions of critique rarely talk to each other. What I like about the linguistic critique is the focus on the indeterminacy of communication, which is important in science communication in particular, as science itself is never ‘determined’. It is a never-ending story, if you like. I believe that it is really important to break away from the twin myth of science and communication being able to overcome ‘indeterminacy’. Instead, both have to learn to live with it.

The asset model of science communication

But what can science communicators actually do to make a more interactive, contextualised, open-ended way of communication happen? When I was thinking/googling about this, I came across a new concept that might help, perhaps: the asset-based approach to thinking and education. I discovered this concept by complete accident. This is the webpage I happened to alight on. It promotes a photography based youth education programme. Under ‘values’ it says: “The AjA Project operates from an ‘assets-based’ model rather than a ‘deficit-based’ model. We believe our students possess the skills and tools for success and self- sufficiency. The AjA Project provides a safe space for reflection, reconciliation and growth so that students can find their own voice and sense of empowerment.”

This made a lot of sense to me. However, when googling further, I found that the term ‘asset-based’ thinking etc. seems to be used in a wide variety of fields from marketing to education to community development. Some aspects of this literature may be more relevant to thinking about asset-based science communication than others. The article on community development I just linked to talks, for example, about citizen participation and developing a “theory and practice of building active citizenship engagement and a stronger civil society”. This seems to resonate strongly with newer models of public engagement with science. So there might be some mileage for science communicators and those interested in public engagement with science to look into these approaches a bit more closely.

What seems important to the asset-based approach is acknowledging and using knowledge, gifts, talents, understandings and skills that people have, rather than focusing on those they are supposed to have. In terms of science communication this means turning our attention from making people appreciate science to appreciating what people bring to the appreciation of science (and let’s face it, most people do appreciate science in one way or another), that is, their ways of knowing and acting, but also their loves, hates, experiences and encounters.

To connect with these ‘assets’, science communicators may want to start collecting stories about people’s interactions with science, as Sophia Collins (and others, such as @katyroach and people involved in Story Collider) did at the recent Science in Public 2013 conference. That is: rather than telling people stories about science, make them tell stories, which you as a science communicator can then use to create communal spaces for conversation. Try to make the stories connect rather than run into each other or past each other.

Evidence-based science communication

How would such an approach, if it existed, relate to an evidence-based approach to science communication which Timmer had alluded to in his blog post and as advocated by Dan Kahan for example? I am not totally sure. The link between the two lies perhaps in the word ‘experiment’. The two approaches are experimental to a certain degree.  However, there might be a difference between experimenting and carrying out experiments and between wishing to make science communication more efficient or effective and making it more enjoyable; or perhaps not… What does it mean to do science communication ‘well’ or indeed ‘better’? Comments and thoughts welcome!

Image: Pieter Brueghel the Younger – Proverbs wikimedia commons


Posted in Science Communication