Monthly Archives: August 2017

The ‘deficit model’ only works half the time when you’re fighting chemophobia

focus group sitting at a table chemicals

The “deficit model” is a widely criticized theory that suggests that people who harbor attitudes of negativity or indifference towards science (in this case, chemistry) do so because they are uninformed about the topic (Chinese: 无知).

People’s misinformation might come from a lack of interest, a lack of exposure or an experience of poor science outreach in the past, where incorrect messages were delivered.

The “deficit model” stipulates that if people knew more about science, they’d naturally become more interested in it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always seem to work, and the ‘model’ is subjected to routine criticism.

Criticisms of the “deficit model”

  • It is patronizing to the public, which alienates them further from science
  • It implies that there is only one coherent, correct narrative of ‘science’
  • It implies that people who don’t like science are misinformed about it
  • Learning science isn’t always fun
  • Being forced to learn something they’re not interested in could reinforce negative attitudes towards science
  • The public is too varied to attempt to give a “one size fits all” theory of science outreach
  • It ignores the fact that members of the public have individual preconceived ideas about science before they’re introduced to new science information
  • It relies too much on monologue/lecturing the public rather than engaging them in dialogues

Employ alternatives to the “deficit model”

Critics of the “deficit model” tend to advocate solutions that involve dialogue (rather than monologue) with the public. Dialogue works better when the particular public audience in question has pre-existing views about the scientific topic being discussed (called ‘affected/partisan’ public groups).

There are four main types of ‘public’ audiences. The table below summarizes each of these types and how to engage with them, and is adapted from Canek Phillips report from 2013.

table 1 mechanisms of deficit model
Table 1 from Phillips & Beddoes (2013). Click to download.
The general public consists of people with diverse views that represent a cross-section of society. In a group, these views cancel out somewhat, hiding the deviation of views. The “deficit model” of monologue delivery is an effective way to engage such a group.

The pure public is a group of people who have no pre-existing ideas about the topic being discussed. The “deficit model” can engage these audiences as well.

The affected public can only be engaged if their pre-existing views are acknowledged and respected beforehand. Dialogue is an excellent way of doing this. Examples of dialogue-based approaches include science shops, public hearings, citizen judies, stakeholder consultations and focus groups.

The partisan public is sometimes led by charismatic leaders or lobby groups. Their views might have been shaped by influential figures (e.g. Mercola, Food Babe) and the pre-existing views (misconceptions) delivered in this way need to be debunked through respectful dialogue rather than monologue.

In short, before telling your audience something, find out whether they have any pre-existing ideas about that topic. If they don’t, then go ahead with a monologue delivery. If they do, then launch a two-way discussion with them, in which you listen and respect their views. Only then, will they respect your opinion as well. ♦

Our senses are hopeless at calculating risk

We overestimate danger when we're not in control, such as flying as a passenger in an aeroplane.
We overestimate danger when we’re not in control, such as flying as a passenger in an aeroplane.
Humans are irrational beings. Smoking kills 480,000 people per year in the United States, while an average of 170 lives are lost to terrorism each year in the same country. Counterintuitively, terrorism receives more media attention than smoking despite having a relatively tiny risk because we’re predisposed to fear dangers imposed by other people more than dangers with which we choose to engage ourselves.

Another great example is aeroplane crashes. Airlines today have an excellent safety record and flying is usually the safest mode of transport (safer than making the same journey by road or rail). We overestimate the dangers of flying on an aeroplane because someone else is in control.

Conversely, because summer heat waves are a natural phenomenon, we’re prone to underestimating their danger: tens of thousands of people die from excessive summer heat each year in the United States alone.

Irrational: we worry about terrorist attacks more than summer heat waves

Our ‘perceived risk’ almost never matches the ‘actual risk’. In the bubble chart below, the area of the circles above the line represent how much we worry about each risk. The area of the circles below the line represents the actual size of the risk in terms of how many people are harmed each year. In many cases, there is a huge disparity between ‘perceived risk’ and ‘actual risk’.

Our perception of risk almost never matches the actual size of the risk. Adapted from work by Susannah Ertrich.
Adapted from work by Susannah Ertrich
The table below shows the factors that increase and decrease our perceptions of risk.
table1 risks template chemicals

Let’s evaluate two examples. First, smoking:

table2 risks template chemicals

Conclusion: people are predisposed to underestimate the risks of smoking (9:1)

Second example: azodicarbonamide (dough improver) added to bread

table3 risks template chemicals

Conclusion: people are predisposed to overestimate the risks of adding azodicarbonamide to bread (1:9)

This strange psychological quirk is one of the roots of chemophobia that I discuss much further in my upcoming book, Fighting Chemophobia (coming out late 2017).

Try it yourselves: use the table to find out whether we’re likely to over-fear or under-fear aeroplane crashes, climate change and parabens in cosmetics. You’ll find that we overestimate the risks of chemical ingredients in our food and products not because they necessarily pose any danger, but because we have this strangely irrational way of assessing risk in the world around us. ♦