Deficits in disguise: the science of science communication

I have felt uneasy about the whole science of science communication thing for a while now. Some night thoughts recently helped me formulate why: The science of science communication is just the deficit model in disguise.

We all know that the deficit model is just so 1980s and we have all moved on from that now, haven’t we? Now our professed concerns are with engagement, dialogue, co-creation, so why is there such importance attached to the science of science communication? Your status as a neutral observer is undermined if you pride yourself in being associated with one side.

How much co-creation can there be if the ground-rules for dialogue state that one side is right? If we are engaged in co-creative dialogue shouldn’t we be open to other voices, other perspectives?

These night thoughts were developed a little further in this post:https://literacyofthepresent.wordpress.com/2017/10/14/deficits-in-disguise-the-science-of-science-communication/

I do hope there is an opportunity to discuss my worries in Bellagio.

 

14 thoughts on “Deficits in disguise: the science of science communication”

  1. This reminds me of an article I wrote for Econnect’s May newsletter on designing messages, which I reproduce here.

    Practicing what we would never preach

    By Jenni Metcalfe

    “If only scientists would listen to what we – as expert science communicators – know about how to communicate properly, then we’d all be a lot better off.” This is the sentiment of several articles I’ve read recently by eminent science communicators.

    These articles warn of the dangers of scientists using a deficit-model approach to communicating their science, especially if it’s controversial: “One-way communication – where you assume you have all the knowledge, and people are empty vessels to be filled with evidence-based facts – well, it just doesn’t work,” warn these articles. “If scientists applied ‘communication 101’ then all would be well.”

    There’s also a call – and an increasing number of publications – by science communication researchers for scientists to pay more attention to the ‘science of science communication’.

    But it strikes me that beating scientists over the head is exactly what we are telling them not to do with their audiences. We’re guilty of using the deficit model ourselves.

    If we want scientists to engage with people, going beyond the deficit model, then shouldn’t we as science communicators be using the same techniques of dialogue and participation?

    What about this as an approach?

    Have an open discussion with scientists about what works (or doesn’t work) about their communication approaches.
    Understand the culture they work within, and its values.
    Recognise that they have practical knowledge and experiences of science communication that we can learn from.
    Listen to their perceptions, concerns and needs.
    Work together to create and test new ways of communicating their science.

  2. Totally agree with the dangers of not practising what we preach! But your suggested approach only tackles half the problem (and may even perpetuate it). The focus is still on scientists communicating science (though now trying to do it more sensitively). So only tackles half the problem (by focusing on science) and perpetuates the problem (by focusing on communication).

    There are two problems with “science communication” – “science” and “communication”. The more we focus on these the less we will be able to engage with the public. By this I mean that our attention should shift from science (and the information it tries to transfer) towards the public (and the problems it faces). Similarly our attention should not be on “communication” as information transfer but on engagement as a relationship between people, groups or stakeholders.

    So, an alternative approach
    Start with people (ie the public)
    Develop relationships
    Build trust
    Then (maybe) there might be some science identified as a need.

    The problem then, of course, is that this would involve a shift in power that may not be in scientists’ interests (as I argue in this piece https://literacyofthepresent.wordpress.com/2014/05/21/science-public-and-the-beast-below/ )

    1. Ah ha Peter, but that depends on how you define “communication”. Too often scientists and science communication, and dare I say SC researchers, see communication as merely “information transfer”. Many of my clients, to my ongoing distress, see science communication as JUST producing websites, brochures, fact sheets or giving public lectures. I have always seen the practice of “communication” as being about spectrum of activities that includes and is not separate to “engagement”. My most successful “communication” projects have been about scientists, science communicators and various “publics” (e.g. farmers, non government organisations, etc) working together with their various sets of knowledge and values to tackle problems of mutual interest and find solutions. Perhaps at Bellagio we should look more carefully at this whole idea of what is “science communication”.

      1. Exactly. Maybe what we are interested in doing isn’t really “science communication”.Should we accept that it is not SC? Should SC change? Should it be renamed? All questions for Bellagio.

  3. I fully share these concerns, Jenni & Peter. I think this is the next big challenge in science communication, de-escalating the veritable culture war that has erupted between science and political populism, and placing science back in a politically neutral (to the extent such a thing exists) framework that blunts its perception as elitist and dismissive of other ways of knowing. One way to start is by axing all references to science as “truth” and solely in possession of “facts” — this springs so quickly and unconsciously from the mouths of scientists (and science journalists and *many* science communicators) and is so incredibly marginalizing and dismissive of any other points of view. The Rockefeller initiatives would do well do scrub narratives like this from any public facing materials and from their conceptual groundings.

    1. I suspect (hope) that we get a chance to discuss the politics of science communication. There are real dangers in that “war” between science and political populism. The answer, however, may not be in science’s political neutrality (if that is possible, as you say) but in the re-politicisation of science. For example, see this from Hartley and Pearce on RRI as an opportunity to “go against the tide of de-politicisation”
      https://www.researchgate.net/publication/307608648_Against_the_tide_of_depoliticisation_The_politics_of_research_governance

  4. Thanks a lot for your comments. Independently, before reading this, I had started a discussion with Jenni and Toss whether our agenda has enough POLICY dimensions in it, meaning both policy and SC Policy.
    We will definitely discuss this, and look into options for even including it explicitly in the programme. Furthermore, if the group manages to come to a conclusion about such matters, I would love to see a DECLARATION coming out of the Bellagio conference. No worries, Peter and Rick, no intention of alluding to presumed monopolies of truth… 😉

    1. I agree we need to look at the connections between science communication and policy during the Bellagio conference. More on this soon.

      As to a “declaration”… I’ve never been a fan of these sorts of things as they always seem to be a compromise between a diversity of interesting views and approaches. And they are made and then nothing happens… but interested to hear what other have to say.

  5. I like “declarations” and “manifestos” as a way to focus discussion (I use them in teaching!). Once you have one it could be useful for publicity and for people to point at and argue over. As to whether they actually get anything done…….probably depends on who is saying what and when etc

  6. I found this discussion really interesting and useful. For me, the ‘science of science communication’ is about accepting that communication is also a science and that we (communicators and scientists) should take note of the evidence of what works and what not if we want to improve the quality and efficacy of our own communication. I think there is immense potential in that, but I agree that it is incredibly important that we don’t fall into the deficit trap with this message itself.

    1. This is an interesting though also somewhat surprising discussion. I realize that the conversation has moved on from critiquing the very idea of a “science of science communication” to the policy dimension (yes, of course), but like Marina I also see the term “science of science communication” to simply refer to the growing scholarship around science communication itself. I don’t quite see how studying science communication (no matter how defined, or how expansive one thinks about it) is limiting what we do or how we do it; in fact, if anything it can expand it. Clearly, if one studies anything, one tends to want to learn about it. That suggests that there is something to learn. Hence there is something we may not have known or were not familiar with, or whose efficacy or effectiveness we did not know. Or we are trying to understand what people do. I guess if there is “deficit” it is in what we may know about a phenomenon. But that meaning of “deficit” strikes me as categorically different from the meaning of “deficit model” in science communication or informal science learning.

  7. This is an interesting though also somewhat surprising discussion. I realize that the conversation has moved on from critiquing the very idea of a “science of science communication” to the policy dimension (yes, of course), but like Marina I also see the term “science of science communication” to simply refer to the growing scholarship around science communication itself. I don’t quite see how studying science communication (no matter how defined, or how expansive one thinks about it) is limiting what we do or how we do it; in fact, if anything it can expand it. Clearly, if one studies anything, one tends to want to learn about it. That suggests that there is something to learn. Hence there is something we may not have known or were not familiar with, or whose efficacy or effectiveness we did not know. Or we are trying to understand what people do. I guess if there is “deficit” it is in what we may know about a phenomenon. But that meaning of “deficit” strikes me as categorically different from the meaning of “deficit model” in science communication or informal science learning.

    1. I agree it is important that we study science communication (hopefully everyone in Bellagio will agree with that). My worries centre around the study of science communication being seen as the “science” of science communication. Firstly, this is limiting in what we do. This excludes many other approaches that some may not wish to call “science”. Does science really have a monopoly on knowledge? This may be especially important for understanding the public who live in and create cultures. “Science” may be particularly inappropriate in studying culture. Which science would do that? Some parts of social “sciences” maybe but there is more to culture than attitudes and behaviours. So, if “science” is limiting and exclusionary why not call it simply the “study of science communication”? This leads me to my second worry. There is obviously some prestige in being able to call something the “science of…” but this only reproduces the prestige (or privilege) given to science itself. This is NOT to say I do not value scientific knowledge but if we are truly interested in the relationship between science and the public then it may be unhelpful starting from a position which privileges one side and downplays the other. Finally, why do I see this as “deficits” in disguise? The question we should ask is what are we trying to do with this science of science communication? is it just to be more “effective” in transmitting the science (ie deficit model) or are we looking for a culture change in the public (in which case science is not the best way to examine cultures)?
      Sorry for the long response. It was longer than I had expected! Clearly there is plenty to discuss in Bellagio which I am very much looking forward to doing.

  8. The fathers and mothers of the “SoSC” idea have indeed admitted that they have felt uncomfortable with the term from the very start.

    When discussing the idea of rephrasing this as “Evidence-based SC” publicly with the community for the first time at the Nancy conference in 2015 (already together with Brian back then), I explicitly stated that the term itself is at least as open for citicism as the SoSC was and is. One way so solve this could be to reflect the reciprocal disconnect by including both perceived deficits in one phrase, which still needs to be crafted but which surely should include:
    (i) scholarship informing practice, hence practice taking scholarship into account
    (ii) practice informing scholarship, hence scholarship taking practice needs into account

    The only solution in general would then logically be to establish mechanisms for a collaborative form of research-practice.

    Who else, by the way, is going to the thrid SoSC Colloquium, in Washington in the week after Bellagio. I’ll be going with two colleagues.

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