Jeffrey Sachs, Global Poverty and the Deficit Model

The solution is public understanding.

Or is it?


  1. In addition to 1) its intrinsic interest as part of the sustainability picture and 2) its value as a model of a truly excellent interview, I post this because of its inadvertent tangency to another issue.

    The aims of this site and most of my efforts are to increase public understanding of and discourse about crucial long-term global issues, what solutions to them might look like, and how best to create a view of the future and a stance toward governance that is optimistic and realistic at the same time. (Yes, I think that is still possible.)

    I have encountered a certain shorthand common in certain circles that suggests this effort might be doomed at its inception. That is that my belief that improved understanding is required for improved governance is the "deficit model" and it has been refuted by social science.

    Now I have stipulated on many occasions that public understanding itself is passive, and so progress is not identical to understanding. Nevertheless, it seems obvious to me that in the absence of understanding that governance must necessarily be suboptimal, and in the case of climate, almost surely grossly inadequate. This stipulation seems to matter little. But my requests for engagement on this matter, even on links to the relevant social science literature, have been met with tired shrugs and allegations that I have already shown myself to be irredeemable,

    It's possible I missed something. I can be lazy or glib or forgetful sometimes. But I really wish that somehow I could understand this, because it sure looks to me to be central to the failure of the public to actually understand our quandary, and of the failure of the press to engage that misunderstanding.

    Now Keith is adamant that my confusion about what he means by the "deficit model" is irredeemable, that my confusion must be based in some stubbornness so deep that he refuses to try to clear it up. I find this both uncharitable and counterproductive. Usually when I am confused about something after trying for a while, I find that I have identified something that others are confused about too. If it's important, one should keep trying to clear it up. 

    So I find it interesting to see Sachs, in this video, evincing exactly the same opinion about overcoming poverty as I say about climate. And that is exactly what I think Keith means by the "refutation of the deficit model". Sachs claims that the key to the issue is public understanding. 

    So Keith, or somebody else who understands what Keith means, please. When Sachs says that the key is public understanding, is he evincing a "deficit model" of the sort purportedly refuted by social science? Does this differ in this regard from my saying that "the key is public understanding" with regard to climate change? 

    But maybe it's the whole point of the refutation of the deficit model that if people don't understand something they are irredeemable. Then the function of journalism reduces to a branch of entertainment, and all is well. So if I don't understand sustainable development, or climate change, or the deficit model itself, all of it is a matter of indifference because it can't possibly matter, according to the secret refutation of the deficit model. 

    If that's right, one wonders why the enlightenment founders of the republic were so concerned with this not-yet-invented fringe entertainment industry, though, and why it deserves the existence of whole schools within major universities.

    But maybe it's wrong. Does the refutation of the deficit model instruct those who understand it not to explain the refutation to those who don't?

  2. Mike,

    This is the first time I had heard of the Deficit Model so I looked it up in Wikipedia. As I had guessed from what you wrote, it says that public uncertainty and skepticism towards modern science is caused primarily by a lack of sufficient knowledge, and that by providing the adequate information to overcome this lack of knowledge, also known as a ‘knowledge deficit’, the general public opinion will change.

    It then states "The deficit model, however, has been discredited by a wealth of literature that shows that simply giving more information to people does not necessarily change their views."

    This should come as no surprise. The IPCC has been supplying information to the public but it as had no effect. Put simply the only way that the public will take action is if they are scared. As Stephen Schneider said "... we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have."

    But of course this cuts across the scientific ethic. However, global warming is not a scientific issue, it is a serious threat to mankind. Scientists have got to be honest and explain this threat, rather than hide their fears because they will be sidelined by the peers.

    The sceptic lobby, who know how to get their ideas over, have already labelled the scientists as scare mongers in order to discredit them. We have got to come out with the true scary scenarios, but the problem is that most scientists don't believe them. To be successful you must be an optimist. Thus the top scientists are optimists and don't believe we are in danger.

    But going back to the deficit model, another reason it does not work is that people are not convinced by argument. Dale Carnegie wrote that even if you win an argument your opponent still believes that there may have been a killer rebuttal but he has not yet found it.

    So I don't expect that I have convinced you that the deficit model is wrong. Oh well, the IPCC will continue issuing their reports over and over again expecting different results 🙁

    Cheers, Alastair.

  3. Public understanding is necessary but not sufficient. Necessary, because without at least some clear inkling of the scale of the threat and the nature of the changes required (and the identity the most problematic behaviours, structures, assumptions and organisations) the necessary political will and (more broadly, and I would argue, more importantly) cultural changes will never materialise but will remain subject to passive and active resistance from cultural inertia stoked by the skills of vested interests. Yet not sufficient because information alone does not change behaviour. For that, a moral disposition is required that finds in change something desirable and/or obligatory. And so improving public understanding of both the science and the social science of climate change (and planetary crises more generally) is a sine qua non, but not itself the silver bullet.

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