Should We Talk about Scientific Uncertainty?

1024px-Nanostars-it1302 As we know, scientific research is far from linear and self-confirming. Science often proceeds in lurches, step-backs, reversals and jumps. New research concerning new technologies and materials – nanosilver for example – is often sparse, uncertain and sometimes even contradictory. Yesterday nanosilver was a promising antibiotic, today it is a risky pollutant, tomorrow it could help deliver cancer drugs. How can we blame the lay reader for asking, ‘why can’t these scientists make up their minds?!’

“In order to enable laypeople to engage in public debate, and to make informed decisions with respect to such new technologies, it seems necessary to inform them about scientific uncertainties.” – Retzbach & Maier

In a study published in Communication Research last month, Andrea Retzbach and Michaela Maier investigate how the communication of scientific uncertainty in media reports on nanotechnology influences readers’ interest in science, beliefs about science and trust in scientists.

Personally, I think too many science communicators and scientists have been steered away from communicating the uncertainty inherent in scientific research. Some have claimed that communicating this uncertainty could confuse laypeople and delay action on important issues such as climate change. I’m not saying this argument doesn’t have merit, especially for issues like climate change that demand action even in the face of some scientific uncertainty because the certainty of negative impacts if we don’t act is so great. But I’m afraid we have over-extended this argument such that scientists in other fields are too wary of communicating scientific uncertainty – at least to lay readers. They might be afraid that focusing on uncertainty in science could deteriorate public trust in scientists, for example.

But the thing is, when people (correctly) perceive science as a “constant debate” rather than “a search for absolute truth,” they are MORE willing to act on climate change even in the face of information about uncertainty in the research. So should we really be steering away from helping lay readers understand scientific uncertainty?

“Scientists could focus on the knowns before the unknowns. Communicators could re-frame the issue as one of risk, a concept familiar from the insurance industry, rather than uncertainty.” - The communication of uncertainty is hindering climate change action 

While previous research has actually reported that readers WANT to be informed about scientific uncertainties (especially food risk uncertainties), news coverage often leaves out commentary on scientific uncertainty. It may be thanks to the traditional news value of unambiguity, but too many news reports present even preliminary scientific findings as being definitive, “beyond doubt” and generalizable. Recent analysis of newspaper articles discussing nanotechnology in the UK and the US found that only half of them mentioned scientific uncertainty.

“It has been assumed that the general public is unable to conceptualize information about risk uncertainties, and so communication about food risk has tended to avoid this type of information.” - Public preferences for informed choice under conditions of risk uncertainty

Retzbach and Maier conducted a field experiment in Germany (final sample of 945 adults) in which participants received six real-world science media reports on nanotechnology. The reports were either one-sided, sometimes talking about potential benefits and sometimes talking about potential harms, or balanced/uncertain.

The researchers found that participants presented with one-sided positive articles about nanotechnology were slightly more interested in new (nano) technologies as a result. However, participants presented with balanced/uncertain articles about nanotechnology were ALSO more interested in new technologies, and sometimes more interested in science in general, than a control group shown no articles. So apparently, the presence of uncertainty in articles about nanotechnology does nothing to reduce interest in science. 1 point for communicating scientific uncertainty.

The researchers also found that the presentation of scientific uncertainty in articles about nanotechnology had no effect on general beliefs about the nature of science. So here, at least the presentation of scientific uncertainty is doing no harm.

Finally, the researchers tested whether the presentation of scientific uncertainty in news reports about nanotechnology has an effect on readers’ trust in scientists. Their conclusion? “[C]ontradicting presentations of nanotechnology did not impair trust in scientists.” In fact, they found marginal evidence that balanced/uncertain media reports about nanotechnology (articles that are mixed on talking about benefits and hams) foster greater trust in scientists. ½ point for communicating scientific uncertainty.

“From a practical point of view, the present results can thus be considered as an encouragement for science communicators to present scientific uncertainties (concerning new technologies) within their stories. Whereas exposure to conflicting media stimuli [based on conflicting stories] might have slightly negative effects on the interest in new technologies […], the presentation of scientific findings as uncertain and controversial (within single media reports) does not seem to impair interest in science and technologies.” – Retzback and Maier

In other words, scientists and science communicators might as well talk about the uncertainty of scientific findings within their stories. Because apparently this does no harm to readers’ interest in science and trust in scientists. On the other hand, there may be more harm in readers getting one story about the benefits of nanosilver from this blogger, one story about the harms of nanosilver from that blogger, etc.

As in all research, there are limitations to Retzback and Maier’s study. We don’t know if presentation of scientific uncertainty could have detrimental effects on interest in science and trust in scientists for other scientific topics. The researchers also mostly point us to lack of negative effects, as opposed to support for positive effects of communicating uncertainty. But still, considering the wider benefits of educating our readers on the process of science and the inherent uncertainty in scientific findings, I’d say let’s talk more about this aspect of science in our Twitter discussions, blog posts and news articles.

What do you think? Have you talked about scientific uncertainty lately?