Scientific Scandal – A Look at the Deficit Model
Is a lack of scientific knowledge the main reason the public can be at odds with the scientific community? Would people be more supportive of nuclear technologies and genetic research if they simply knew more about it?
The assumption that it is a lack of public understanding or knowledge that has led to the present climate of scepticism toward science underpins what has become to be known as the ‘deficit model’. (Layton, 1993)
Not surprisingly this model has come under a lot of critiscm; there are surely other reasons such as culture, religion or world-views, such as environmentalism (Slovic and Peters, 1998), that can lead to misperceptions of risk. The model is seen as too normative and simple, and so Sturgis and Allum try to re-evaluate it and find out how important knowledge is when addressing public discontent with the scientific community and their research.
Through a series of quantitative tests we end up with an interesting conclusion. Our response to scientific news can be closely related to our response to political events. Those with low levels of political knowledge tend to see political scandals as much more serious than those with higher levels of political knowledge. We all know about the scandal involving former US president Bill Clinton: The research suggests that those with higher levels of political knowledge and experience would not have attributed the behaviour to his character unlike those with less political knowledge.
Sturgis and Allum relate this evidence to science, arguing that ‘with a greater degree of political understanding and awareness, it may be that people are less likely to attribute the less fortunate outcomes of scientific development to the bad character of scientists or politicians but to a more complex set of institutional, political and other ‘situational’ factors.’
So at the end of the day it seems this paper confirms that scientific knowledge (or at least, knowledge of the wider range of circumstances surrounding the science) can be a major factor of a persons response and could explain why the public react badly to some scientific advancements where other contextual factors are barely present.
Do you think this study is accurate? To what degree does already existing knowledge (both scientific and political) play a part in the public’s reaction to science?
Written by Aaron Cull.
Based on the paper: Sturgis, & Allum, N. (2004). Science in Society: Re-Evaluating the Deﬁcit Model of Public Attitudes. Public Understanding of Science, 13(1), 55-74. [Full Paper]
D. Layton, E. Jenkins, S. McGill and A. Davey, Inarticulate science? perspectives on the public understanding of science and some implications for science education (East Yorkshire: Studies in Education Ltd, 1993).
P. Slovic and E. Peters, “The Importance of Worldviews in Risk Perception,” Journal of Risk Decision and Policy, volume 3, 2 1998, pp. 165-170.