In the first year of undergraduate uni, most of us knew what psychology was, and knew what we were studying. If we didn’t, why would we have signed up to study it? Then the further we got through uni, the less sure we were about what psychology actually was, and what we were studying.
Now, the exact same thing is happening with sci-comm. Does this apply to lots of other subjects? Do geographers or chemists start uni and then discover they have no idea what geography or chemistry is?
The cause of this confusion was spending the last week reading up on “public engagement with science”, as it’s the topic for our first exam. So far, the more I read, the more frustrated I get. Everything seems like an infinite loop of dependent ideas. For one thing, even defining it is hard; “public”, “engagement”, and even “science” don’t have one clear meaning. Another is that public engagement with science is supposed to be a rejection of the “deficit model”- the idea that the public were empty containers, ignorant of science, who would understand science if teachers poured in the facts.
We’re supposed to have moved on from the deficit. But new theories and plans still share in the deficit model’s condescension. Is it even possible to talk about science communication, to divide scientists and non-scientists, without automatically putting the public at a disadvantage?
According to some theorists, “scientific literacy” led to an improvement- “public understanding of science- led to another improvement -“public engagement with science”. From this perspective, scientists and communicators have progressed: We’ve gone from throwing facts at people, to explaining science, to getting people involved with scientists and scientists.
Another perspective is that these are three strands of the same thread of progress. People need a base of factual knowledge to understand explanations, and need that understanding to know what they’re engaging with and why. Then, the results of engagement will be visible as increased understanding and knowledge.
Either way, we’re not getting away from the deficit, as we’re still assuming there’s an ultimate goal of getting the public to see our side of the story, rather than understanding theirs. One definition of public engagement I really liked was simply “mutual learning”- many public engagement exercises wouldn’t even fit that definition.
Dialogue models- focused on two-way interaction between scientists and the public- were supposed to replace deficit models. However, actually getting meaningful dialogue is difficult. Public engagement studies have found that many scientists believe that what they study is too difficult to explain to the public, and a large proportion of the public believe that science is too complicated for them to take part in. Long-term research on people’s knowledge of scientific facts shows that even though people claim a strong interest in science and admiration for science, people get about the same amount of science fact questions right as they did before the public engagement movement existed.
Some events aimed as dialogue can actually be politically-correct deficit, taking in people’s opinions after the decision has already been made. Or it can be aimed at calming people down, stopping them from objecting to a decision, rather than genuinely inviting questions.
Public engagement with science, in the participatory democracy sense of having the public being able to make decisions about how their world is run, and where the government, science, and the public actually know what the other is doing, is a utopian idea. Whether we’ll ever be able to achieve it is another matter.