The lure of rationality

Simis, M. J., Madden, H., Cacciatore, Michael. A., & Yeo, S. K. (2016; in print). The lure of rationality: Why does the deficit model persist in science communication. Public Understanding of Science, 25(4), 400-414. doi:10.1177/0963662516629749

Abstract: Historically, science communication has been predicated on the assumption that ignorance is the basis of a lack of societal support for various issues in science and technology. This model, known as the knowledge deficit model of science communication, has led much of the subsequent research in the field to explore the concept of science literacy. Empirical research has shown that public communication of science is more complex than the knowledge deficit model suggests. In this essay, we pose four lines of reasoning and present empirical data for why we believe the deficit model still persists in science and its public communication. First, scientists are trained to be objective decision-makers. We posit that such training results in the belief that public audiences can and do process information in a similar manner. Second, the persistence of this model may be a result of current institutional structures. Many graduate education programs in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields generally lack formal training in public communication. We offer empirical evidence that demonstrates that scientists who have less positive attitudes toward the social sciences are more likely to adhere to the knowledge deficit model of science communication. Third, we present empirical evidence of how scientists conceptualize “the public” and link this to attitudes toward the deficit model. We find that perceiving a knowledge deficit in the public is closely tied to scientists’ perceptions of the individuals who comprise the public. Finally, we argue that the knowledge deficit model is perpetuated because it can easily influence public policy for science issues. Addressing the multitude of variables that impact public attitudes toward science is much more difficult than a one-size-fits-all approach that targets public knowledge levels, which makes the deficit model particularly appealing from a policy formation standpoint.

Michael Cacciatore 

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