Science communication shapes public trust in science, and communicating science effectively is among the most pressing issues faced by the scientific community today. Against a backdrop of climate change and COVID-19 ravaging the planet, many in Canada and globally continue to mistrust scientific evidence, see scientists as elitists, and spread mis- and disinformation faster than it can be addressed. What is to be done?
There has been a push among scientists, science communicators, and science journalists to present clear and accurate information to the public. Yet, as climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe points out, the facts are not enough. Even the clearest, most accurate, eloquently written tweet about COVID-19 vaccination will not convince the unconvinced. It will not engage someone whose way of knowing differs from that of western science. It will not reassure those whose lives have been impacted by medical negligence. We all have our own set of unique cultural, social, and personal contexts, and these influence how we come to, think about, and act on scientific advice.
The lingering idea of knowledge deficits
Science communication in Canada has come a long way in recent decades. Scientific research institutions now dedicate significant resources to sharing their work and engaging audiences. Workshops and classes in science communication are common at universities, science centres, and other organizations across the country. Efforts are made to develop activities specifically for underrepresented groups in STEM. Some of these, like the WISEST (Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science, and Technology) program at the University of Alberta, empower underrepresented and marginalized groups to succeed in STEM. These have had measurable and lasting impacts.
The tendency to revert to deficit thinking still lingers, however. In science communication, a deficit model assumes a lack of science literacy in the public, which must be filled. It assumes that scientists have critical knowledge which the public needs in order to make informed decisions about their lives. This puts scientists in a privileged position. It implies that a transmission of knowledge is needed from scientist to citizen. The citizen is at a disadvantage before any communication has even begun.
It is true that some knowledge about science is important for navigating life. But the deficit model favours western science and leaves little room for constructive, empathetic conversation. More inclusive and authentic ways to communicate are needed. Not with the goal of increasing the elusive science literacy, but rather to understand one another’s needs and beliefs and to work together to solve common challenges.
When scientists visited English sheep farmers after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 to provide advice on managing risks, local knowledge was not taken into consideration. This led to unnecessary suffering in the farming community and mistrust in the visiting scientists and western science more broadly. Science studies scholar Brian Wynne points out that local farmers showed “extensive informal reflection upon their social relationships towards scientific experts, and on the epistemological status of their own ‘local’ knowledge in relation to ‘outside’ knowledge. Public uptake of science might be improved if scientific institutions expressed an equivalent reflexive discourse in the public domain.”
Focusing on context in science communication
A lot has changed since the 1980s. New models of communication have challenged the deficit assumption. Citizen science projects across Canadian communities involve the public in data collection and analysis. Co-creation activities among researchers and Indigenous community partners tackle common challenges. But more work is needed to address lingering deficit assumptions.
For years, researchers, including Wynne, have been calling for a greater focus on context in science communication. It is important that scientists and science communicators reflect on their own understandings of science, communication, and the public. Have some underserved audiences been left out because they associate science with negative experiences? How does the language and narration style used to describe science foster inclusion or exclusion? Are dominant ways of knowing being replicated in popular science communication at the expense of marginalized communities?
As Professor Robin Wall Kimmerer, scientist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, writes in Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, “It is this dance of cross-pollination that can produce a new species of knowledge, a new way of being in the world. After all, there aren’t two worlds, there is just this one good green earth” (p. 47).