For centuries, science communication was based on teaching facts. However, recent failures to communicate science, such as the anti-vaccine movement, indicate that this top-down approach isn’t an effective way to improve the public’s perception of science. Today more than ever, farmers are incorporating science and technology into their daily farming practices. As agricultural communication and science communication join forces, we need to move beyond science literacy and strive instead for an engaged, supportive public.
As early as the 1800s scientists were aware that a scientifically illiterate public could negatively affect the advancement of research. Many scholars have argued that science literacy is the staple of an informed public. However, just because someone knows the facts doesn’t mean they will think critically and make decisions based on those facts.
Early science communication was based on the “deficit model.” In this model, the public was akin to an empty vessel and needed to be filled with facts. The assumption was that facts could simply be administered to the public, and after receiving the “facts vaccine” they would be “immune” to conspiracy or misinformation. This top-down approach was the framework of science communication for decades, but today we know that it’s a very ineffective way of improving the public’s support of science.
A recent meta-analysis found that scientific knowledge and a supportive attitude are only weakly positively correlated, and in some cases knowledge had a slight negative correlation with attitude. Clearly a general science education is valuable, but science literacy is not the solution to solving the conflict between science and society.
So what can we do? In the past decades, science communication has recognized the need for a “dialogue model”, or a two-way engagement between scientists and the general public. An experiment to test this model was conducted in the United Kingdom in 1994. Sixteen members of the general public volunteered to sit on a panel and evaluate the risks and benefits of plant biotechnology. They set their own agenda, selected the witnesses, and conducted the questioning. The panel’s verdict was very balanced, and ultimately supportive of biotechnology. They didn’t just learn the facts – they were engaged in the process.
The “dialogue model” of science communication can easily be applied to agricultural communication. Simply providing the general public with the facts will not signifi cantly affect their attitudes and decisions. Instead, we need to engage the general public in a two-way dialogue, where we listen to their concerns and connect using shared values (i.e. family, love for the outdoors). We need to leave the facts at home and engage the general public on an emotional level. Only then can we earn their support and maintain our social license to operate using science and technology on our farms.