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.

Involved in a major political scandal.

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.


2 comments so far

  1. selinamj on

    I think this topic is really interesting. It has actually been the focus of a lot of my study for my politics major.
    I think this study is quite accurate as I have come across a lot of academic work on how misinformation or a lack of information significantly impacts an individuals perception of news or situation.
    If you take another political example during 2003 at the start of the war in Iraq the public was receiving highly positioned media that was largely misinformed. There was also a lack of balanced information on the topic and on the whole the public did not have access to very much information. In this case they took cues from political leaders and supported the war. Over time as more information became available it allowed people to make a better assessment of the situation and, unsurprisingly, attitudes changed and support for the war decreased substantially.
    Like you have said similar things happen with the communication of science. When people don’t have much information on a specific topic they are likely to follow the cues of opinion leaders and often will reject change. People are scared of that they do not understand. It is as simple as that. This presents many issues for science communication, especially in the public health sector. It is often very hard for the Health Department to convince the public that genetic testing or pharmacogenetics or stem cell research has significant benefits because people don’t fully understand how these things work. This is then coupled with negative media.
    So I think that existing knowledge (or lack there of) has a significant impact on how individuals respond to scientific developments.

    • Aaron Cull on

      Thanks, those are some good points. I’m particularly interested in your example of stem cell research and negative media. A better understanding of this technology would likely result in widespread acceptance but that doesn’t mean the media are aligned with the advancement of a scientific project.

      Media outlets are mainly concerned with ratings. Why should they try and educate people when a scandal increases ratings and revenue so much more? A scientist trying to educate a population is faced with political obstacles as well as a confused or ignorant audience.

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