Communicating Science and the Fallacy of the Deficit Model

By Gil McRae, FWRI Director

“No, no! The adventures first, explanations take such a dreadful time.”  ― Lewis Carroll (Real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, an accomplished mathematician) Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

In high school I had a math teacher who could write equally well with both hands – at the same time. In fact, he would start an equation on the chalk board from both ends meeting perfectly in the middle. But this was not his most amazing skill. He had a unique ability to explain how the algebra, geometry and trigonometry he taught had impacted the course of history and why it was important to understand their applications even if you did not necessarily need the skills in your chosen profession. One example he gave still sticks with me to this day. Using trigonometry it is possible to tell the height of a tall object without ever leaving the ground (or throwing something up there). My 14 year old self found this amazing (discretely of course because nerdy was not cool back then). If this type of thing is possible, what else is out there for me to discover?

The remarkably ambidextrous Mr. Scherzer was not simply trying to transfer what he knew to his students, he took the time to figure out how students might relate to the information and make it meaningful to them. He understood that good communication is not just about the transfer of knowledge, it is about making a connection.   To paraphrase Maya Angelou, people may forget what you say, but they will remember how you made them feel. This is something we cannot fight, it is embedded in our DNA. Humans have been telling stories for at least 40,000 years and the advance of language and complex narrative communication shaped our evolution long before that. When you hear basic factual information in list form (or a bulleted PowerPoint) the language is processed in a certain area of the brain (Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area) which simply decodes the words into meaning. That’s it. When we hear a descriptive metaphor or a story we can relate to our brain’s sensory cortex is also activated. So when we read or hear a story about a beautiful song or a velvety soft chair our brain activates in the same area that is used when we are actually hearing or feeling these sensations. Good narrative communication and storytelling literally create a simulation of reality in our brain. This is why you can read Harry Potter much more quickly (and enthusiastically) than an economics textbook.

So how does this help us communicate science to non-specialists? For much of recent history, the communication of science has relied on what has come to be called the “deficit model”. This model assumes two things: 1) that public distrust or skepticism toward science is due to a lack of knowledge about science and 2) that providing information about science will overcome this knowledge deficit and thus cause the public to conclude that goods things emerge from science. This approach has resulted in the presentation of countless fact-laden PowerPoints and reports containing information that is quickly lost after pinging Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas. Simply conveying information is not enough, you need to figure out a way to ping the sensory cortex as well. You need to make a connection. This is increasingly the case when nearly limitless facts (and alternative facts) are available to anyone with an internet connection. Facts are no longer the exclusive purview of a learned elite.

In the mid-1980’s the Royal Society of London recognized that technology and science pervaded modern life and concluded that national prosperity depended on public understanding of the methods and limitations of science and its practical and social implications. They embarked on a decade long effort to promote Public Understanding of Science (PUS – the acronym is unfortunate) which mandated that UK scientists receiving government grants communicate about their work to the public. The goal was to promote public understanding of science and appreciation of scientific matters. Committees were set up to guide the process and funding was allocated to support the program. In an assessment a decade later, the review team concluded that all components of the PUS initiative were working splendidly, but there was little improvement in public scientific literacy other than the recognition of the initials “DNA”. The review also indicated that 80% of the public were interested in science but only 20% thought they were well informed. It became very clear that these approaches based on the “deficit model” were simply not working. In the UK, the deficit model has been abandoned as a communication strategy and a new contextual approach to Public Understanding of Science which relies on dialogue and trust building has proven much more effective.

It is not an easy thing to convey scientific information within a meaningful narrative with contextual relevance that impacts how people feel about an issue. The two forms of communication often seem to be at odds with each other. Logical scientific communication strives to be context free while narrative communication is context dependent. Also, logical scientific communication is judged on the accuracy of its claims, while the legitimacy of narrative communication is judged on the believability of its situations. It is important to realize that the sources from which people receive most of their science information are already biased toward narrative forms of communication. Just think about the most popular news or radio shows or podcasts. If viewers or listeners are presented with a compelling narrative that they consider believable they may consider that on an equal level of “truth” with an opposing outcome delivered through logical-scientific communication.

So in communicating science to non-specialists we need to think first about building trust, creating a productive dialogue and presenting the information in a meaningful context to the specific audience we are addressing. This requires more up front work to understand your audience, but it is always time well spent. If you need inspiration in this area, I have a few suggestions. Cosmos, the PBS television series (and subsequent book) from 1980 by Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, is a masterful example of scientific communication for a general audience and my personal inspiration for pursuing a career in science. There is a recent re-boot of this series narrated by Neil deGrasse Tyson, the noted astrophysicist and an excellent scientific communicator. Also, pick up any of the more than 300 essays written by Stephen J. Gould during his remarkable 25 year run writing the “This View of Life” column for Natural History magazine. A number of these essays are published separately in several books (easily found on Amazon) with whimsical titles such as “The Panda’s Thumb” and “The Flamingo’s smile”. His ability to take a specific detail and generalize to a broader context was unparalleled.

Let’s all make nerdy cool again!