Posts Tagged ‘deficit model’

Thinking About Science

July 9, 2017

This is the eighth post in the series The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone (Unabridged), written by Steven Sloman and Phillip Fernbach. Thinking About Science is a chapter in this book.

Were it not for science and, more importantly, scientific thinking we would still be living in the dark middle ages. Our wealth and health is due to scientific thinking. Yet knowledge about science and belief in scientific facts is lacking. HM admires the Amish. Although they reject science, they live the humble lives dictated by their beliefs. Too many others enjoy the fruits of science yet reject scientific methods and findings. Their lack of respect for science exposes us to the continued risks of global warming and puts unvaccinated children at risk, to name just two problems.

In 1985, Walter Bodmer, a German-born geneticist, who is a professor at Oxford University in the UK, was appointed by the Royal Society of London to lead a team to evaluate the current state of attitudes toward science and technology in Britain. The Royal Society was concerned about antiscientific sentiment in Britain, seeing it as a serious risk to societal well-being. The results and recommendations of the study were published in a seminal paper known as the Bodmer Report.

Previous research had focused primarily on measuring attitudes directly, but Bodmer and his team argued for a single and intuitive idea that opposition to science and technology is driven by a lack of understanding. So via the promotion of better understanding of science, society can promote more favorable attitudes and take better advantage of the benefits afforded by science and technology. This idea about science attitudes is called the deficit model. According to this model, antiscientific thinking is due to a knowledge deficit. Once this deficit is filled, antiscientific attitudes will be mitigated or will disappear.

The paucity of scientific knowledge and abundance of antiscientific beliefs have been documented in all societies that have been studied. Although there is a weak relationship between scientific knowledge and attitudes about science, attempts to address the deficit model have failed. This is in spite of the millions and millions of dollars spent on research, curriculum design, outreach and communication, little to no headway has been achieved.

HM thinks that science is so vast and continually expanding that the deficit is simply too large to fill. Although scientists are knowledgeable in their specialties, as they move away from the specialities that knowledge falls off.

But there is another explanation that scientific attitudes are not based on the rational evaluation of evidence, so providing information does not change them. Attitudes are determined instead by a host of contextual and cultural factors.

These two explanations are not mutually exclusive. They are likely both operative.

One of the leading voices promoting this new perspective is Dan Kahan, a Yale law professor. He argues that our attitudes are not based on rational, detached evaluation of evidence because our beliefs are not isolated pieces of data that we can take and discard at will. Instead these beliefs are intertwined with other beliefs, shared cultural values, and our identities, To discard a belief means discarding a whole host of other beliefs, forsaking our communities, going against those we trust and love, virtually challenging our identities.

Drs. Sloman and Fernbach flesh out this theory by the story of Mike McHargue, who now is a podcaster and blogger who goes by the moniker Science Mike. Mike once attended a fundamentalist church and held fundamentalist beliefs. When he reached his thirties he began reading scientific literature and his faith in these beliefs began to waver. His initial reaction was to lose his faith completely, but for a long time he kept his new beliefs from his community. Eventually a personal experience helped him rediscover his faith and he is now, once again, a practicing Christian, but he continues to reject his fundamentalist church’s antiscientific beliefs.

Here is Science Mike’s response to a caller who has begun to question many of his beliefs:

Do I have advice on how to live when you’re at odds with your community? Absolutely. Do not live at odds with your community… You are a time bomb right now. Because at some point you won’t be able to pretend anymore, and you will speak honestly, and there will be a measure of collateral damage and fallout in your church. It’s time to move on. It’s time to find a faith community that believes as you believe…When that happens, you’re going to lose relationships. Some people cannot agree to disagree and those relationships can become abusive…There is a lot of pain because there are some people who are dear to me that I can’t talk to anymore…It is not possible for us to have the relationship we once had, and it’s rough. I’m not gonna lie. It’s rough.

This poignant response provides useful and important advice.

HM accepts the fundamental thesis of Drs. Sloman and Fernbach, that our knowledge is inadequate. Scientific evidence can be wrong, but at any given time, the scientific evidence available is the best information to use. We ignore it at our peril.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.