Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Killing the linear deficit model of science communication

The idea that "the public" will make better decisions about health and the environment "if only they knew what I know" is widespread among ecologists and nutrition scientists. And probably other scientists too. Science-policy interface experts call this idea the "linear deficit" model. And it's wrong.
There are many, many empirical studies of the science-policy interface that show this. However, I've never seen a clearer demonstration than this blog post by Dan Kahan from the Cultural Cognition project at Yale Law School. Here's the figure that matters:
This figure shows response to 4 questions by people categorized as conservative or liberal. Three of the questions ask for factual assessments of things like whether climate change will affect the risk of skin cancer. In all three factual questions there is no difference between the responses of conservatives vs. liberals. If anything, conservatives are more likely to get the factual responses correct. This shows that there is no deficit in knowledge. None. Now look at the fourth question, which asks if there is evidence that global warming is due to human activity. HUGE difference between liberals and conservatives! And in fact the difference gets bigger as people become more knowledgeable about climate science (moving to the right along the x-axis).  Kahan's point is that people's cultural background drives their responses to this sort of question, not their level of scientific knowledge. 
This same sort of cultural orientation drives peoples reactions to wildlife management questions too. This is why no amount of science will ever convince cat lovers that feeding feral colonies and Trap/Neuter/Release is a bad idea. Can't be done. Convince animal rights activists that hunting mountain lions in Nebraska is necessary and acceptable? Can't be done.
You could come to the conclusion that one's work as a scientist is meaningless to important debates. But that's not correct either. Kahan says,
we need to decontaminate our science communication environment of antagonistic cultural meanings so that we can get the benefit of what [scientists] are doing to help citizens comprehend what science knows.
 I'd like to figure out how to do this in controversial wildlife management topics too.


  1. http://www.esajournals.org/doi/abs/10.1890/090160 - link to a Frontiers article I'm a co-author on, on those same themes. There was a whole special issue on Science Communication along with this piece - much of it focused on how the "deficit model" doesn't work for building an informed coalition on an issue. The issue was a product of a Cary Conference on the same theme.

  2. Thanks for that link and reference to the special issue, Amy! I've read at least one of those papers before, by Gene Likens on the Acid Rain debate. From his conclusion though, I'm not sure he's gotten over the linear deficit model: "...scientists cannot expect politicians to listen to them if they cannot make clear and compelling statements." Also in his "Panel 1" there are clear indications that the fault lies in communication.