Published: May 13, 2019 By

By their nature, scientific fields are constantly in flux, rapidly evolving and publishing new discoveries.  While the methods, technologies and theories in these fields are eternally under development, the tools and manners in which they are communicated, both within the scientific community and to those outside of it, seem to have remained static. Scientists have always used a specialized and relatively inaccessible vocabulary with a focus on communicating with other experts. Science has changed, but science communication appears to be the same it has always been.

However, this unchanging nature is an illusion. No, science communication certainly hasn’t changed at the same rate iPhones have been churned out or even the rate that our understanding of the human genome has grown, but that isn’t to say that it hasn’t developed at all. Unlike the rapid bursts and revelations characteristic of many scientific fields, science communication has experienced a slow progression from one model to another—from deficit to dialogue.

But what are the differences between these models? Which is more effective? This post will both define these different science communication methods and outline the main points in the debate raging between them.  

What is Science Communication?

Science communication covers everything from the most to the least technical communication in the field. It ranges from colleagues in narrow, specific fields publishing in journals, to experts from different fields collaborating, to researchers sharing their findings with the public through popular media.

Publishing in the most elite journals, writing grant proposals, talking to a co-worker in the cafeteria, and tweeting to friends and family are all forms of scientific communication. As long as the goal is to express a technical concept to someone else, it falls under the vast umbrella of science communication.

What Does “Model” Mean in Terms of Science Communication?

In the case of science communication, it has only been in recent years that scientific rhetoric experts have drawn attention to establishing (or, more accurately, identifying already-established) models.

“Model,” in this case, is the manner in which scientists attempt to communicate their research to each other and to the public.

With a field that encompases all of “science,” it is hard to identify a single model that can possibly hold true for all of these different flavors of communication. Nonetheless, science communication models exist. They are primarily introduced by the scientific community to address some chronic difficulty in sharing their work with the public.

It may sound like an intentional process, but many science communication techniques rise to popularity incidentally, without any sort of research or movement behind them. The art of scientific communication is a natural and constantly evolving process as scientists explore new methods of distributing information.

A (Very) Brief History of Scientific Communication

Science communication has evolved through three revolutionary eras. Initially, science communication was limited to word of mouth and time-intensive handwritten manuscripts. Out of necessity, this kept the spread of research at a glacial pace, within an extremely select group of people, in a small geographic area.

Then, the printing press was invented, and manuscripts could be mass-produced and distributed. This invention was a boon to the scientific community, but did not massively benefit the public—the average person didn’t have the education required to understand scientific publications, even if they were literate enough to read them.

The next revolution in scientific communication came in the early 20th century, with the invention of faster forms of transportation, such as trains and improved personal vehicles. More efficient transportation permitted a greater number of scientific conferences, giving the presentation and exchange of ideas a physical location. Prior to these transportation innovations, large conferences were an impossibility.

The last revolutionary invention was the internet. With the development of the World Wide Web and online databases, accessible from anywhere at any time, science communication exploded. It was at this point that the study of science rhetoric as a field of literary analysis was born.

Like many other fields,  scientific rhetorical analysis was born out of necessity. Today, the literacy rate in the United States sits somewhere between 86% and 99% (depending on the grade level of reading proficiency required to be “literate”). Nonetheless, the majority of the population is still incapable of comprehending the average scientific publication.

With the internet, the barrier to access to scientific publications is massively reduced. And yet, science communication still goes almost completely unread by those outside of an intimate scientific community.

This problem led to the development of defined science communication models, which helped both scientists and others to recognize that the current method, dubbed the “deficit model,” wasn’t working when it came to interesting the public in scientific research and addressing their moral or political concerns.

What is the Deficit Model of Science Communication?

Deficit Model with experts and society The deficit model of science communication asserts that information flows in one direction. The public is perceived as an ignorant mass in need of scientific enlightenment, and it is the duty of the scientist to provide that information.

Understandably, this view was prevalent in the Renaissance and Enlightenment ages, when a large fraction of the population was completely illiterate and relied on elite authority figures  to provide scientific information. Even in Florence, a center for Renaissance thought, it is estimated that only 20% of the population was literate. This percentage was mostly composed of people who were functionally literate, or literate enough to get by on a day-to-day basis, but lacked an understanding complete enough to engage in the complex religious or scientific exploration that was blooming at the time.

With so little of the population able to read and a lack of focus on public education, any vital information needed to be transmitted by word of mouth. Science, religion, and philosophy were still considered the passions of a wealthy person—inaccessible and useless for the common man.

Even as extraordinary science began to creep into everyday life in the form of technological innovations like vacuum cleaners, washing machines, and televisions, the deficit model was still firmly in place. Scientists made proclamations, and the general public accepted and consumed the expert information without question.

Where Are We Today?

In the modern world, this is no longer the case. With a majority of the population in wealthy nations like the U.S.  literate, able to access the internet, and exposed to many basic scientific concepts via public education, most people are capable of doing limited research and forming their own opinions. The necessity of having an expert to disseminate information is greatly reduced.

Another cultural shift rendered the deficit model inadequate as science bloomed into the modern age. This change was a product of more people having access to information, as well as the advancement of various technologies. Issues like cloning, nuclear power, and GMOs made the headlines and became everyday conversation topics. The attention paid to these developments expanded far beyond the traditional ivory tower or bubble of cloistered, educated minds. As revolutionary science became a part of everyday life, it became more challenging for a democratic government to argue that the people should have no voice in how science was conducted or what topics were pursued.

Tensions began to build under the deficit model as the experts passed information to the public, and the public rejected or chose to ignore it.

The problem lays in the fact that the deficit model seeks to address only a single problem: many people don’t understand science. The solution? Have an expert inform them. In the modern age, a lack of understanding isn’t always the entirety of the issue. Often, the public understands the science—they just don’t support it or have monumental concerns that are left unaddressed.

Historically, these concerns have become so serious that protests, riots, strikes, and other forms of civil disobedience have broken out. Obviously, something needed to change. The dialogue model developed beginning in the late twentieth century as an attempt to reduce growing tension between science and the public.

So, What is the Dialogue Model?

The dialogue model asserts that scientific communication cannot be unidirectional. That is, scientists lecturing lay-people is not the only, or usually most effective, method of sharing scientific information.

In the dialogue model, the scientist is still viewed as the expert, but the public has the opportunity to ask questions, respond, and play a more active role in shaping the political and social repercussions of the science.

Examples of the dialogue model include public-friendly blog posts and publications, question and answer sessions, scientists called to testify in court as experts, interviews on podcasts, and public debates. Society’s adoption of the dialogue model is also visible in the number of scientific advisory or consulting positions that have appeared over the last few decades.

The dialogue model does not support the traditional method of providing information and then vanishing. For science communication to be optimized, the expert must be consistently available to answer questions and address concerns.

The open source and open science movements in data, coding, and software reflect the motion of the scientific community from the deficit to dialogue model.

A Few Qualifications

There are some substantial questions that must be addressed when comparing the deficit and dialogue models.

First, many scientists claim that there is not actually a difference between the two models. They argue that the dialogue model is simply about gauging the public’s reaction, allowing the scientist to find a time in which their information will be best-received rather than actually engaging in two-way conversation. Their view holds that the dialogue model is practically equivalent to the deficit model, but it adds public response as a feedback loop.

This perspective is widely contested—many scientists argue that there is a vast difference between the two models if the relationship between the scientist and the public is considered. They assert that a scientist’s increased public involvement in the dialogue model is much more dynamic and inclusive than merely waiting for the right moment to make a proclamation or release results.

Another common debate in the science communication field is centered around the possibility of a complete transition between the two models. Many argue that the deficit model will always be a necessary part of science communication. There must be an expert who dedicates their life to studying a narrow and challenging topic, allowing them to impart their wisdom to a less educated public. Without this foundation, no dialogue can possibly take place.

A final aspect of the deficit versus dialogue debate is that the merit of each is highly contested. There are those that believe the deficit model is fundamentally undemocratic, taking the voice of the people and robbing them of the ability to influence the direction that science takes. The close-door interpretation of science frightens many people, leading to concerns about the relationship between science and industry. These questions and pressure can act as a check and balance system to limit corruption in interactions between science and the commercial world, making the dialogue model a vitally important “watchdog” feature.

On the other side of the debate, many believe the dialogue model is dangerous. It creates the perception that scientific fact can be decided by popular vote. Supporters of this opinion argue that by representing science as up for debate, we are undermining the power of scientific fact. In addition, if science is always waiting on public approval, our ability to progress and create new, possibly extremely beneficial technologies will be crippled.

The Answer

So, which is better, dialogue or deficit?

Like many things, the answer is that there is no strong consensus one way or another.  It depends on the field, the particular research project and the political and social climate in to which the information will be introduced.

If you expect the research will get a warm reception, the public has a strong background or understanding of the field, and you can’t think of any significant concerns that may be raised, using the deficit model may be perfectly legitimate.

On the other hand, if your research is ethically problematic, or likely to raise many questions and concerns, you should probably explore the dialogue model.

Increasingly, the science and science policy communities view the dialogue model as the most effective way to format public communication, but the deficit model persists in many situations. Both offer unique advantages and disadvantages. This debate continues to rage in many branches of the academic world, growing in importance as scientific understanding and everyday life merge in areas including climate change, vaccinations, GMO foods, and many others.

What parts of this complex issue am I missing? Representing poorly? What is your opinion or experience? Let me know at earth.lab@colorado.edu, and feel free to get in touch with any questions!