Maybe it’s something in the air: Spring brings out the sociological criticisms of science, or something. But for some reason, this week people have been talking at me about the “deficit model” repeatedly, and it is really beginning to annoy me. The latest source is Alice Bell in the Guardian, who says some sensible things (don’t treat scientists as a priesthood!) and then gets all mushy-mouthed over the myth of the deficit model. How nice of her, though, to define it for us.
It’s the critique of the so-called “deficit model” many of us have been dancing to for decades. The deficit model, if you’re lucky enough not to have come across the term, assumes science has the knowledge the public are deficient in, and that many of our social ills will be solved if we all listened to the experts. It’d be a nice idea maybe if science, the media, policy or people were that simple, but they’re not (I talked about similar issues in my Radio Four piece on scientific literacy last year).
Oh, no…it brings back cranky memories of those annoying rounds of argument with Mooney and Nisbet, who loved to slam us with sneering rebukes that we’re true believers in the Deficit Model, and don’t you know, everybody rejects that model nowadays.
And I’d just, what, say what, I what? I’m right here, why are you arguing with that caricature? Look, I’ve spent decades battling creationists, giving them the actual facts in the face of their distortions, and I know they heard me, and I know they’re not so stupid they couldn’t comprehend what I was saying, and yet they’ll be back the next week saying the same lies. I know that there’s more to getting people on the side of reason then calmly stating the evidence while equipped with a Ph.D. I don’t know anyone who subscribes to this “deficit model” of which you speak.
Here’s the model I actually accept; let’s call it the Obstacle Model. Everyone has a whole collection, to varying degrees, of obstacles that interfere with effective progress: for instance, there’s poverty, and racism, and sexism, and religion, and authoritarianism, and ignorance. Focusing on just one without paying any attention to the others means you won’t get very far. Every good educator knows that teaching is a multi-dimensional problem.
Correcting ignorance has a rather critical role to play in the solution. I think the other factors I listed are more important in giving people the will and capability to make decisions, but addressing an intellectual deficit is essential in giving them the power to decide how to decide; without it, you’ve got a blundering herd of enthusiastic incompetents.
But ignorance also has a special place because it’s the one thing teachers are commissioned to address, so if you’re interested in deprecating expertise, finding a straw man like the “deficit model” to set on fire is a handy tool to knock those scientists and educators down a peg. It’s also a useful bludgeon if you’re a sociologist and want to assert your authority over those puffed-up boffins (not that I think most sociologists have an inferiority complex, but some of the dumbest things ever said about science come out of the mouths of sociologists).
You want examples? Alice Bell continues by citing sociological analyses of the scientific establishment.
The deficit model sticks around partly because it feeds scientists’ social status, implicitly underlining their powerful position as people who get to define what counts as important, true, reliable knowledge. Stephen Hilgartner put it well back in 1990, saying such top down approaches implicitly provide the scientific establishment with the epistemological right to print money. Something we don’t appreciate enough though is that also serves the handmaidens of the deficit model – science communication professionals, less powerful scientists, many science “fans” – offering them some social status by association. Play into a game of hierarchies, and even if you don’t get to the top, you get to climb a bit. Pierre Bourdieu, in his classic sociology of the university campus, Homo Academicus, talks about the way students are happy to submit to the idea that they are inferior to senior academics because doing so earns them subsequent admittance to a distinguished club of graduates. I think we can see similar patterns at work in terms of the way academic ideas are shared outside of universities too.
O My Fellow Scientists, do you feel like you have the right to print money? Here we are in an occupation with relatively limited recompense — we tend to be solidly middle class, which is very nice, but not much more — and we had to spend much of our youth in training, which from a purely economic point of view, represented a tremendous loss in earning potential. Deferring getting an entry level job because you spent a decade in graduate school and post-doctoral positions isn’t sound financial sense. Are these critics even aware of how many scientists get thrown into the churn of the unending provisional appointments? Somehow, though, we always get this criticism from creationists and other outsiders that we’re in it for the big bucks, as if we’re investment bankers or oil company executives.
O My Fellow Scientists, do you feel like you have high social status? I certainly don’t. Scientists are not particularly well-regarded in the communities I live in, except among ourselves; I follow politics, and scientists certainly don’t play much of a role there. Except when they’re trying to fill knowledge deficits (which is constantly trivialized by these critics of the deficit model), scientists are treated as awkward nerds with no social skills at all — the archetype we see flaunted on shows like The Big Bang Theory. You’re very confused if you think Sheldon is regarded as having high social status. He’s a pretentious clown.
O My Fellow Scientists, do you scorn your students and think of them as your inferiors? Maybe some do; I certainly don’t. I’m in this teaching position because I respect and enjoy the company of students. I identify with my students.
And here’s the thing: that hierarchy? Definitely a mixed bag. I remember being a student, and my professors were pretty much just like me, except with added obligations. Graduate school was wonderful — they had to order me to wrap up and get the thesis done. I tried to keep my post-docs going as long as I could stretch them out, because every step up the academic ladder meant less playing in the lab, more uncertainty (where am I going to get a job?), and more teaching and administrative responsibilities. If I had my druthers, I’d still be a grad student.
Even now, I’m dragging my heels about getting promoted to full professor, despite the nudges from my unit head. Promotion would mean a little more money (but I’m not in this job for the money!) and additional responsibilities in campus-wide governance. Why should I do that? Because I’m a good citizen of my university, not because I have some illusion that it will let me lord my superiority over others.
But OK, Bell does salvage the article in the end.
Less cynically, top down models also stick around because scientists do, genuinely, have special ideas and information to share. We pool our resources to allow a few people to cut themselves off and become experts in particular subjects. We do this so that they might feed back their knowledge and we can, collectively, try to make a better world. We should listen to them. As David Dickson wrote in 2005, factual reporting of science can be socially empowering for audiences. It’s worth remembering this. Political systems of scientific advice in government are built partly for this reason too, to make best use of scientific expertise. I don’t want to throw the baby out with bathwater, and lazy critique of science is not just silly, it can be dangerous (if you’ve never read Merchants of Doubt, do).
Yes, that is the way it works. I’m glad to see a realistic perspective on the matter — now if only everyone would realize that most scientists share this same view, and that this deficit model crap is a sociological contrivance intended to take a back-handed slap at expertise.