"I explained how vaccines work, and they still weren't going to vaccinate their kid. What else am I supposed to do? If they don't want to learn, then I can't help them." This is the gist of several conversations I've had with a few scientist friends. I wasn't sure who was more frustrated—my colleagues, bewildered by people who refused to act in accord with scientific recommendation, or me, irritated that my friends could so callously wash their hands of any responsibility on an important public health issue simply because they were met with skepticism. Fortunately, some scientists are keen on trying new approaches to reach the public. But there are still sticks-in-the-mud who insist that if the public won't accept information provided to them by scientists, then there's not much to be done in the way of changing their minds.
This theory of science communication, the so-called "deficit model," suggests that public skepticism of science is due to a lack of information and understanding, and can be overcome if more information is provided. But the model has been widely discredited. Simply giving someone information, no matter how much or how many experts stand behind it, just isn't enough to convince them. So why, in the face of evidence, do some scientists continue to insist that information must be sufficient to persuade the public?
The irony is that if the deficit model did apply, it should be to scientists. We place extraordinarily high value in data, with as little emotion involved as possible. Even a strong "gut feeling" about a scientific finding will be pushed aside when we see enough rigorously obtained evidence to the contrary. In contrast to many members of the public, a skeptical scientist can be convinced by giving them enough information. At least that's true when it comes to questions about our personal fields of research.
But the reluctance of some scientists to accept the failure of the deficit model approach indicates that pure information isn't enough to convince them, either—otherwise, they would acknowledge the research and look for new ways to talk to the public.
I do not place the blame solely on my stubborn colleagues. The science of science communication is rarely, if ever, discussed among academic researchers in many fields of "hard" science. They may not even be aware that the concept of the information deficit exists, much less that it's not an accepted model of science communication. Training in public communication for researchers is also rare—so when they operate by the deficit model and share information directly, they're just doing what they know from speaking with colleagues. And although a majority of researchers agree that scientists should be actively engaged in public policymaking about science and technology, they may not want to do it themselves.
There are other approaches to communication which provide alternative methods to opening dialogue with skeptical audiences. For instance, contextualization suggests that science must be presented in the context of a person's values, beliefs, and personal experience. Scientists accustomed to making decisions purely based on evidence, without the influence of feelings or personal values, may find this to be an onerous task.
The stakes are high, though. One need only consider the controversies surrounding climate change, vaccinations, and genetically modified food to understand that learning to communicate better with the public is a worthwhile endeavor. Whatever the reason may be for scientists sticking to the deficit model, it should not be a deficit in knowing about communication theory. Once they do, we can hope that respect for this research will be enough to convince them that it is not only advantageous to discard the deficit model approach, but that it is scientifically the right thing to do.