Rehabilitating the deficit model for risk communications (or why having a better conversation starts with not calling the other person an idiot)

We seem to be pretty bad at talking to one another right now. 

Subjects where you might expect some general agreement with maybe a slight difference on the edges become die-in-the-ditch arguments. Arguments that rapidly spiral into unrelated areas of increasing vitriol.

If you’re talking about sports, then that’s fine: we don’t expect Yankees or Red Sox fans to agree. 

However, we need a way to have a measured debate when talking about public safety, national security, or healthcare issues. I believe that we can achieve that by improving the deficit model for risk communications. (There’s a primer on risk perception and communications here if you’re not familiar with the topic.)

Challenges to discussion

Significant challenges stand between us and cool-headed discussion on a host of topics: professional commentators in the media, online trolls, and special interest groups all exist to exaggerate, slant, or obfuscate matters. I don’t want to tackle these here, although it is worth noting that risk managers and risk communicators will face this final issue in particular. If you’ve had to discuss climate change with someone from the oil and gas industry, you’ll know what I mean.

So I’m not going to try to deal with those difficulties here but, there is one area where I think we can make significant improvements in how we approach contentious discussions.

Knowledge versus ignorance

Put simply, we need to change how we think about knowledge versus ignorance. 

Somewhere along the way, we’ve started to equate these with different, less helpful terms. So we now see knowledge as equating to smart and ignorance associated with being dumb. That’s sometimes the case, but these concepts don’t relate that way.

Domain knowledge means having a good grasp of a specific area of expertise. Some areas – quantum mechanics, AI, deciphering the Dead Sea Scrolls, even parts of risk management – require a high level of intelligence to acquire that domain knowledge, but that’s not always the case. 

All of us know someone of average intelligence with an in-depth knowledge of plants, a sports team, or the town’s history. Their domain knowledge isn’t representative of their intelligence: they might not be super-smart, but they are very knowledgeable in that one area.

Conversely, if King Solomon or Benjamin Franklin magically appeared in today’s world, there would be a lot they didn’t understand: they’d lack knowledge. Their intelligence, on the other hand, would be unaffected. 

In other words, they’d be ignorant but still intelligent.

So equating a lack of knowledge with stupidity is wrong. Ignorance of a topic doesn’t make you stupid. 

But it’s too easy for the knowledgeable to condescend to the ignorant: calling the other side ‘stupid’ prevents a meaningful dialogue. 

For risk managers, mistaking ignorance with stupidity alienates an important cohort of stakeholders, misses valuable insights and makes people resistant when it’s time to share our findings.

Scientific knowledge versus societal knowledge

However, there’s another problem concerning knowledge versus ignorance.

We often treat scientific or technical knowledge as the only knowledge relevant in a discussion, but we’ve also identified that people can have deep domain-specific knowledge in non-scientific areas. 

(Let’s call this ‘societal knowledge’ for now although I don’t love that term. Notably, this isn’t the same as the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ which is closer to public sentiment – and therefore less rational – than the individual expertise we’re talking about here.)

However, when scientific and societal knowledge ‘compete’ in a conversation, other problems arise. 

First, we often feel that scientific knowledge ‘beats’ societal knowledge. 

Second, there’s still a knowledge gap, but now the scientist lacks understanding. They are ignorant of the societal context (but as we established, not dumb).

So we have a host of problems to solve. But how?

The deficit model: pros and cons

I think the answer lies in rehabilitating the deficit model for communication but, at the same time, tweaking the model to solve some of the problems we’ve identified.

Just in case you didn’t start today with a spirited discussion of risk communication models over breakfast, the basic concept of the deficit model is that opposition to ideas, particularly scientific ideas, stems from a lack of knowledge. If you can overcome this deficit by educating people, they are likely to become more supportive of an idea.

The deficit model’s flaw is that it is too easy for it to become a very hierarchical, top-down system where the minister or man-in-the-lab-coat knows best: they control the information. This control makes it hard, if not impossible, for marginal groups, minorities, or those lower down in society to become involved in these discussions.

It’s also very easy to selectively control what information they release to the public. That’s not to say that governments need to share everything, but they shouldn’t try to spin and massage the data when we’re trying to solve public health emergencies. 

Citizen scientists

However, the late 20th century saw the rise of ‘citizen scientists’ in many countries. Individuals could now gather their own information via the web or through improved communications. Not only was information more widely available, but many hierarchical structures were crumbling around the same time.

Now, people were much more able to conduct their own research to close the knowledge deficits themselves, and they were also able to speak up more easily. 

This meant that both expert and lay perspectives were included in discussions, moving away from the deficit model and allowing more inclusive, thorough discussions. 

I think that this is a much more effective approach than the hierarchical deficit model, and there was probably a decent balance at some point around the turn of the Millenium. 

From hierarchy to anarchy

Unfortunately, things have swung in the opposite direction, and we now have become a free-for-all. Instead of a hierarchical system, we have an anarchical situation.

You can bring your own ‘facts’, all opinions matter, and every utterance demands to be treated with equal weight, whether there’s any basis in fact or not. The trolls, cable TV agitators, and professional naysayers make a measured conversation difficult.

So how can a return to the deficit model help?

How to rehabilitate the deficit model

I think it starts with a recognition that we have two knowledge deficits: the scientific and societal. The public needs to understand the science, and scientists need to understand the societal perspective. 

This addresses both knowledge deficits and gives societal knowledge the same credibility as scientific knowledge. 

Next, we need to stop equating ignorance with a lack of intelligence. Even when it’s not intended, it’s too easy to dismiss people who are ignorant as being stupid or not ‘getting it.’ 

Recognizing that ignorance is just a knowledge gap – a gap that can be filled – overcomes a significant impediment to productive discussion.

As risk managers, this is critical for us as we need to have these productive discussions to develop understanding and to share our findings.

The small print

Now, some important caveats.

First, equal credibility doesn’t mean equal importance in every case. There will still be times where scientific evidence outweighs the societal aspects. 

Second, societal knowledge has to be just that: knowledge arising from study and empiricism. It’s not just gathering opposite opinions, asserting false equivalency, or ‘whataboutism.’  

Third, this won’t overcome the powerful influence of misinformation. It can be harder than ever to determine what the facts are, which is a dark irony given that we now have more information available to us than at any time in history. Whether it’s due to the repetition of falsehoods or concealing critical information, establishing a set of agreed facts is a challenge. 

Fourth, we shouldn’t assume that this will always result in agreement. People are more than capable of understanding a topic and still acting in a way that appears irrational. That’s a complex and fascinating issue but the point is that a better conversation doesn’t always lead to a better outcome. Perhaps the result is agreeing to disagree. But at least agreeing to disagree leaves the door open for future conversations, whereas calling someone an idiot does not. 

These are not insignificant challenges and these difficulties are increasing. 

An inclusive deficit model

I think we can overcome these challenges, but we have to get the right people into the conversation before we solve any issues. And to do that, we need to recognize that there are many different types of domain knowledge and an equal number of areas of ignorance.

If we can treat all domain knowledge with the same level of respect, and use an inclusive deficit model to close these knowledge gaps, then we will be in a much stronger position to have meaningful, productive discussions.

If nothing else, we need to stop equating ignorance with stupidity.

As I’ve mentioned, there are still some significant challenges to pulling this off and I still don’t have answers to all of them but I’m going to keep returning to this topic because I think it’s an important one.

Photo by Sarah Kilian on Unsplash

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