Inarticulate Science – beyond the deficit model

This small piece originally ran under the heading “Translating the Language of the Lab”, but I’d steer clear of the translation metaphor now, at least without careful elucidation. It records early stirrings of useful UK research on public understanding of science. I liked the book because it came out of an education department and the lack of interchange between science education and science communication folks bothered me at the time. That has got better, although science education – particularly under the current Government in the UK – arguably has not. Beating up on the deficit model is still a fairly popular sport in the circles where these things are discussed, I believe.

Imagine that you are the parent of a newborn baby with Down’s syndrome. Your first schooling in what this means will be at the hands of the medical and paramedical professions. But how much of it will convey what you need to know?

One the evidence recounted in one of the case studies in this short book, rather little. Doctors’ discourse is organised around concepts like genes and chromosomes and risks of recurrence, and clinical details of likely learning difficulties and disabilities – which have been characterised in great detail. But carers need to know how to feed children who have difficulty sucking, what kinds of exercise they need, how to help them learn to speak. Over time, each family develops a stock of practical knowledge about these and many other problems, which appears to have little relation to formal, expert knowledge of the syndrome.

As this suggests, the authors’ perspective on the public understanding of science is on attempts to use science for specific purposes, rather than on the appreciation of the beauties of scientific ideas. They are interested in the articulation of formal and practical knowledge.

The book begins with a review of the history of ideas about the public understanding of science, a field brought to new prominence by the Royal Society’s report of that title in 1985. That report – and much other official discussion up to this year’s White Paper on science and technology – assumed a “deficit” model of public understanding, in which ignorance can be remedied by instilling scientific literacy.

Much of the research that has been done since 1985 has contributed to the gradual demolition of this model, and the results of a number of studies conducted under the Economic and Social Research Council programme that foliowed the Royal Society report are now becoming available. The four case studies outlined here – all carried out from the University of Leeds – complement this work.

All show that there is no simple mapping relating formal scientific knowledge to practical problems, or showing how they can be formulated in scientific terms. Drawing on their own findings and the later ESRC-funded studies, the authors outline an “interactive” model of the public understanding of science. This stands in contrast to the deficit model in recognising that science may be marginalised when integrated with other knowledge. The model acknowledges that the assimilation of scientific knowledge by publics, if it happens at all, is a complex process in which elements of that knowledge are sifted and reconfigured to improve their fit with prior conceptions and new needs.

The interactive assumption also has implications for science education in schools, although the case studies here focus on adults. These implications are taken up in a final chapter that argues for teachers and their pupils to become fellow explorers of the science community-of-practice. How this might work is given only the briefest discussion, but it does offer a welcome exception to a tendency for the public understanding of science literature to ignore the mass education system. On the other hand, it also makes this a small book with a very large agenda, and often only suggestive where a longer work might be more persuasive. I hope the authors will try and weave these threads into a grander canvas before long. (1993)

(Inarticulate Science? Perspectives on the public understanding of science and some implications for science education. David Layton et al. Studies in Education.)


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