Scientific controversies are everyday routine in empirical sciences. Such controversies, e.g. experts putting forward different views on one issue, are – in an epistemological sense – argumentative approaches towards the best conclusion. Emotional “side effects” of conflict can occur, but are not the dominant explanation for scientific controversies. We assume that laypeople, who usually do not expect scientific controversies, may struggle with finding a good explanation for scientific controversies when the conflict displayed is (negatively) emotionally charged: Then the conflict might appear to be interpersonal but not inherent to the topic.

In our empirical studies, we compare the impact of different versions of a newspaper article about two experts controversially discussing the pros and cons of an anesthetic. In detail, we explore the potential differential impact of reported affective behaviors (experts who argue in an exited and rancorous way) on recipients’ evaluation of scientific experts’ trustworthiness. Furthermore we assess recipients more general notions about the variability and structure of scientific evidence. We assume that an emphasis on the affective tone of the argumentation effectuates laypersons’ underestimations of the inherent and epistemic nature of scientific conflicts. Instead, it enhances a folk psychology interpretation of such conflicts.

In study 1 (N = 42), we compared the impact of an article where the discussion of the experts was displayed as neutral and fair with a contentious version (displaying a rancorous debate). In a nutshell, results reveal that participants reading the contentious article rated experts trustworthiness lower and perceived scientific evidence to be generally less variable than participants reading the neutral article.

In study 2 (N = 44), we found that different explanations provided for the contentiousness (comparing an emphasis on the topic-inherence of scientific controversies with an emphasis on expertsÒ’ irascible and pejorative discussion behavior) alter the effects found for the contentious article in study 1.

In study 3 (ongoing) we investigate whether results found so far are limited to negatively-laden discourse and compare a positively charged discussion with a neutral one.

We will discuss implications of our studies for laypeoples understanding of scientific controversies and derive suggestions for communicating scientific uncertainty.

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Public Communication of Science and Technology

 

Communicating uncertainty in scientific information
The impact of affect-laden discourse

Dorothe Kienhues   Department of Psychology, University of Muenster

Rainer Bromme   Department of Psychology, University of Muenster

Scientific controversies are everyday routine in empirical sciences. Such controversies, e.g. experts putting forward different views on one issue, are – in an epistemological sense – argumentative approaches towards the best conclusion. Emotional “side effects” of conflict can occur, but are not the dominant explanation for scientific controversies. We assume that laypeople, who usually do not expect scientific controversies, may struggle with finding a good explanation for scientific controversies when the conflict displayed is (negatively) emotionally charged: Then the conflict might appear to be interpersonal but not inherent to the topic.

In our empirical studies, we compare the impact of different versions of a newspaper article about two experts controversially discussing the pros and cons of an anesthetic. In detail, we explore the potential differential impact of reported affective behaviors (experts who argue in an exited and rancorous way) on recipients’ evaluation of scientific experts’ trustworthiness. Furthermore we assess recipients more general notions about the variability and structure of scientific evidence. We assume that an emphasis on the affective tone of the argumentation effectuates laypersons’ underestimations of the inherent and epistemic nature of scientific conflicts. Instead, it enhances a folk psychology interpretation of such conflicts.

In study 1 (N = 42), we compared the impact of an article where the discussion of the experts was displayed as neutral and fair with a contentious version (displaying a rancorous debate). In a nutshell, results reveal that participants reading the contentious article rated experts trustworthiness lower and perceived scientific evidence to be generally less variable than participants reading the neutral article.

In study 2 (N = 44), we found that different explanations provided for the contentiousness (comparing an emphasis on the topic-inherence of scientific controversies with an emphasis on expertsÒ’ irascible and pejorative discussion behavior) alter the effects found for the contentious article in study 1.

In study 3 (ongoing) we investigate whether results found so far are limited to negatively-laden discourse and compare a positively charged discussion with a neutral one.

We will discuss implications of our studies for laypeoples understanding of scientific controversies and derive suggestions for communicating scientific uncertainty.

A copy of the full paper has not yet been submitted.

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