Bioethics Blogs

Public Perception and Communication of Scientific Uncertainty

Scientific results are inherently uncertain. The public views uncertainty differently than scientists. One key to understanding when and how scientific research gets misinterpreted is to understand how the public thinks about scientific uncertainty.

A recent paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General explores how laypersons perceive uncertainty in science. Broomell and Kane use principle component analysis to discover three underlying dimensions that describe how the public characterizes uncertainty: precision, mathematical abstraction, and temporal distance. These three dimensions, in turn, predict how people rate the quality of a research field. Precision – loosely defined in this context as the accuracy of the measurements, predictions, and conclusions drawn within a research field – is the dominating factor. One interpretation is that the public is primarily concerned with definitiveness when evaluating scientific claims.

Members of the public lose confidence when fields of study are described as being more uncertain. This is relevant for scientists to consider when communicating results. On the one hand, over-selling the certainty of an outcome can mislead. On the other hand, the public might tend to dismiss important scientific findings when researchers describe uncertainty honestly and openly, as we have seen in the public denial of vaccinations and climate change. Perceptions of a research field do not seem to influence how people view individual studies, so each study should be treated as its own communique.

Broomell et al found some evidence that personal characteristics interpret scientific uncertainty in different ways. Self-identified Republicans are more concerned about expert disagreement, while self-identified Democrats are more concerned with the quality of evidence.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.