The following thoughts are hopefully instructively wrong.
The idea that science communication inherently occurs via two channels— meaning and content– strikes me as one of the most useful ways of thinking about it. The content entails the information, be it news of a fresh study or an explanation of some concept, and the meaning is determined by how that information strikes the receiver. If a climate skeptic and a climate advocate read the same article, they receive the same information but radically different meanings. If you have a homogeneous audience, you can attempt to control what you transmit on the meaning channel. For a mixed audience, however, your options are limited to trying to avoid inflaming a few known, hazardous meanings.
To twist this model around a bit, I can imagine the goals of science communication fitting into different channels, as well. In the spirit of one-upmanship, I prefer three channels. The first is the information channel, where the goal is simply to inform those with a desire for that information. Here, the “deficit model” can actually be quite a decent fit, just as self-motivated students can learn a lot from a very dry course that would be considered pedagogically poor. There are tons of science-hungry, curious people out there that love to learn about their topics of choice. There’s certainly plenty of space for you to do a better or worse job of engaging readers, but they’ll basically be content if you can communicate clearly. (I’ve blabbed on before about “preaching to the choir“.)
The second channel is the persuasive one. Here it will be more important to have a specific audience, as you’re attempting to win them over from a position of mild or strong opposition. They could be people skeptical of anthropogenic climate change, resistant to evolutionary science, or fearful of genetically modified food. The deficit model will be about as useful here as a kayak in the desert, considering the fine array of psychological weaponry we all have for fending off information inconsistent with our beliefs and cultural identity. This is usually the arena where we’re crapping on the deficit model. The public opinion needle on [insert topic here] is remarkably resistant to the dissemination of information, so this information-based science writing thing isn’t working. I hope I’m wrong about this, but what if that’s a bit like complaining about the number of square pegs that made it through round holes? I think most people writing about science do so with the hope that it can make a difference on contentious and important issues, but that may be be asking for miracles.
The third channel doesn’t reach out to the curious or to the opposed, but to the non-curious. The apathetic. We’re trying to shift people into the curious camp, where they are reachable with other types of science communication that can get to deeper places. You run MythBusters marathons on channel 3 and see if you can get people to tune in to NOVA on channel 1 more often. (Going back to the content/meaning model of communication, this is an attempt to change the general meaning on science content from “not meant for me– boring” to “something I can dig”.)
Can we really work on more than one channel at once? We spend a lot of time talking about communication problems in “traditional” (for lack of a suitable term) science writing– how to reduce polarization and minimize the potential for readers to tune us out. There are certainly ways to be more effective, but overall, it seems pretty damn hard, and I’m starting to wonder. Many solutions for improving communication on channel 2 aren’t compatible with traditional science writing, because the solutions are to do other things– two-way conversations, appeals to cultural frames, pulls over pushes. Great, let’s do those things, but what about improving the science writing, too? Does the paucity of results there mean we haven’t looked hard enough (it’s not like there’s a lack of enthusiasm…) or does it mean you simply can’t do that much to make a screwdriver into a better hammer?
At the very least, maybe we need to be more specific when we talk about improving science communication. (Improve it on which channel?) And maybe the answer to the question “How can traditional science writing help with contentious topics?” is an unhappy one– do no harm and inform the receptive curious. If that’s the case, a lot less energy needs to be spent on making channel 1 work do channel 2’s job.
If there are ways to, as Peter Broks put it, become co-creators of meaning in the traditional avenue of newsy science writing, then that’s what we need to talk about. The conversation seems to often lack the specificity needed to be useful to that avenue, which leads to frustration and wheel-spinning because science news isn’t formal education isn’t informal education isn’t guerrilla outreach.
Like a lazy high school student on Yahoo! Answers with math homework, I just want to know how to get this part right.