Clarifying Uncertainty Measurements

Increase understanding by explaining the factual implications of error measurements.

One of the core aspects of scientific research is the constant interplay between known and unknown. Yet, this dance with uncertainty is often misunderstood when communicated to the public, primarily because the word 'uncertainty' holds different meanings in scientific and colloquial contexts. This blog will explore the challenges in communicating scientific uncertainty and propose strategies that scientists can use to improve audience comprehension.

Uncertainty in Science vs. Colloquial Use

In everyday language, 'uncertainty' often implies a lack of knowledge, hinting at indecisiveness or doubt. However, within the scientific realm, 'uncertainty' carries a different connotation. It refers to the inherent variability, ambiguity, or potential error that comes with any scientific measurement or prediction. It is an explicit acknowledgment of the limitations of our knowledge and methods. 

For example, when a weather forecast predicts a 70% chance of rain, it doesn't mean that the meteorologist is unsure. Instead, it represents a quantified uncertainty, acknowledging that weather patterns are complex and that predictions cannot be 100% accurate.  

The challenge lies in conveying this nuanced definition of scientific uncertainty without it being misconstrued as ignorance or unreliability.

Techniques to Communicate Uncertainty Effectively

 1. Use Concrete Examples and Analogies: One way to clarify the concept of scientific uncertainty is to use concrete examples or analogies that people can relate to. For instance, comparing the uncertainty in climate change predictions to the unpredictability in tossing a loaded dice could help explain the concept. The dice will not yield a completely random outcome, but neither can the result be predicted with certainty. Similarly, climate models provide a range of possible outcomes, not exact predictions.

2. Visualize the Data: Visual representations can help communicate uncertainty in a more intuitive and comprehensible way. Instead of presenting raw numbers or percentages, scientists could use graphs, charts, or infographics to illustrate uncertainty. 

For example, a 'confidence interval' can be visually represented as a range on a bar graph, providing a clearer picture of the extent and impact of uncertainty. Weather forecasts often use maps with gradient colors to show the areas of greatest uncertainty.

3. Framing Uncertainty as a Range of Outcomes: Uncertainty can be less daunting if it's framed as a range of possible outcomes rather than a single definitive result. This approach acknowledges the inherent variability in scientific predictions and helps avoid the pitfall of appearing to make un-kept promises. For instance, when predicting sea level rise, scientists might provide a range from the best-case scenario to the worst-case scenario, making it clear that the actual rise could fall anywhere within this range. 

Communicating uncertainty is a complex but crucial aspect of science communication. By refining our communication techniques, we can demystify the concept of scientific uncertainty and help the public appreciate it not as a shortfall but as an integral part of the scientific process. With these tools, we can work towards fostering a public understanding of science that is not just based on facts and figures, but also appreciates the nuances and complexities of scientific exploration. 

Please contact us through the link below if you would like to host a training workshop for your scientists to learn more about how audiences receive information about uncertainty and practice techniques that convey uncertainty in ways that boost audience comprehension.

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