Information deficit model
In the social studies of sciences or, more precisely, in those on the Public Understanding of Science (PUS), the information deficit model (or simply deficit model) attributes public scepticism to science and technology or hostility to a lack of understanding, resulting from a lack of information. It is associated with a division between experts who have the information and non-experts who do not. The model implies that communication should focus on improving the transfer of information from experts to non-experts.
Deficit model of science communication
The original term ‘deficit model’ was coined in the 1980s by social scientists studying the public communication of science. The purpose of the phrase was not to describe a mode of science communication but rather it was to characterise a widely held belief that underlies much of what is carried out in the name of such activity.
There are two aspects to this belief. The first is the idea that public uncertainty and scepticism towards modern science including environmental issues and technology is caused primarily by a lack of sufficient knowledge about science and the relevant subjects. The second aspect relates to the idea that by providing the adequate information to overcome this lack of knowledge, also known as a ‘knowledge deficit’, the general public opinion will change and decide that the information provided on the environment and science as a whole is reliable and accurate.
Scientists are often heard to complain that the general public does not understand science, and that the public needs to be educated. In the deficit model scientists assume that there is a knowledge deficit that can be ‘fixed’ by giving the public more information: scientists often assume that “given the facts (whatever they are), the public will happily support new technologies.”
The deficit model, however, has been discredited by a wealth of literature that shows that simply giving more information to people does not necessarily change their views. This is partly because people want to feel that they have had their say (and have been heard) in any decision-making process, and partly because people make decisions based on a host of factors as well as the scientific ‘facts’. These factors include ethical and religious beliefs, in addition to culture, history and personal experience. This amounts to a kind of gut feeling, which scientific facts are unlikely to change. Put another way, people’s sense of risk extends beyond the purely scientific considerations of conventional risk analysis, and the deficit model marginalises these ‘externalities’. It is now widely accepted that the best alternative to deficit model thinking is to genuinely engage with the public and take these externalities into account.
The deficit model sees the general population as the receiver of information and scientific knowledge. The information they receive, through whatever medium, has been prearranged to inform them of information that the distributors believe to be in the public’s interest. Due to the recent growth of scientific research and subsequent discoveries, the deficit model suggests that this has led to a decrease in interest surrounding certain areas of science. This can be down to the public feeling overwhelmed with information and becomes uninterested, as it appears too much to take in.
The deficit model of scientific understanding makes assumptions about the public’s knowledge. The model perceives them to be “blank slates” where their knowledge of scientific discourse and research is almost non-existent. Again, this is the knowledge deficit that needs to be informed by a reliable, knowledgeable and hierarchical scientific community in the form of simple commands and generic instructions. But the increase in new information systems such as the Internet and their ease of accessibility has led to a greater knowledge of scientific research and this is evident as the public’s understanding can be seen to be growing. This is a good thing in terms of the members of the public that can actively increase their own knowledge base, decrease the knowledge deficit and assess the truth and validity of what mass media outlets and governments are telling them. This should enhance and increase the relationship between the passive “blank slates” of the public, with the minority of the population who hold the ‘knowledge surplus’.
The role of the media
Mass media representations, ranging from news to entertainment, are critical links between the everyday realities of how people experience certain issues and the ways in which these are discussed at a distance between science, policy and public actors. Numerous studies show that the public frequently learn about science and more specifically issues such as climate change from the mass media.
There is perceived to be a trend within much of the world’s media that a traditional commitment to report the full facts is and has given way to a more obvious, less reliable tendency to concentrate coverage on interpretations of the facts. This so-called ‘spin’ is reported by the world’s press under a combination of commercial and political pressure. This can be dangerous as it ‘fills’ the knowledge deficit and the unsuspecting public with sometimes unreliable, agenda promoting information. The subjects of anthropogenic global warming and climate change are at the forefront of this. However, in all cases it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate out the factual basis of what is being reported from the ‘spin’ that is exerted on the way a story is reported and presented.
The mass media is accessible to the vast numbers of the global population and ranging from entertainment, to news media, and spanning books, films, televisions, newspapers, radio, games and the Internet. More modern forms of communication and receiving of information have given the public a much wider and accessible format in which to gain knowledge themselves.
The actual processes behind the communication and dissemination of information from the experts to the public may be far more complex and deep running than the deficit model suggests.
- Dickson, D (2005) The Case for a ‘deficit model’ of science communication. Science and Development Network.
- Brown, S (2009) A new deficit model. Nature Nanotechnology. Volume 4. 609-611.
- Kearnes M., Macnaghten P. & Wilsdon, J. Governing at the Nanoscale (Demos, 2006); available at <http://www.demos.co.uk/publications/governingatthenanoscale>.
- Boykoff, MT (2009), Creating a Climate for Change: Communicating Climate Change and Facilitating Social Change. Glob. Environ. Polit. 9 (2) 123-128
- Gregory, Jane and Miller, Steve (2000), Science in Public: Communication, Culture and Credibility, (London: Perseus)