Scientific controversies are characterized by an important level of uncertainty (which is different from risk), expressed as a lack of knowledge and conflicting expert views. Furthermore, consequences of environmental problems can potentially reach many people, and this raises the question of communicating the available knowledge to the public.

However, the existing literature suggests that certain scientists and decision-makers believe that communicating uncertainty to the public will produce panic and will discredit science. We have tested this hypothesis for the controversy on the effects of endocrine disrupters (EDs) on human male fertility. The empirical set-up combined two methods, i.e., focus groups and subjective estimation of perceived uncertainty using a measurement scale proposed in the literature. Six short texts and videos were selected from a book and documentary films of science popularization and were presented to 11 groups, each made of 6 to 12 citizens. Each group met once, for 3 hours. Texts and videos were chosen as following: the 2nd, 4th and 5th contained uncertainty but the 1st, 3rd and 6th did not. After each presentation of one text and one video (having similar content), people used the scale for expressing subjective uncertainty and discussed the information received. Meetings were transcribed and annotated by 3 researchers.

Our results show that lay people raise a larger and different range of uncertainties compared to those contained in the researchers’ messages. We propose a model for the transformation of uncertainty between emission and reception. Statistical treatment of the subjective assessments of uncertainty shows significant influence of uncertainty communication by scientists on people’s judgments about the causal relationship between EDs and male fertility. Qualitative analysis of the transcripts show that, as long as public scientists (toxicologists) are concerned, instead of discrediting information previously expressed with certainty, uncertainty is often perceived optimistically as additional information and an opportunity for research. On the contrary, for private scientists, conflicts of interests are judged to be the major motivation for expressing uncertainty.

For most participants, uncertainty does not produce panic but is reassuring. Other expressed feelings and their relationship with uncertainty communication will be discussed (e.g., helplessness, feeling guilty, revolt, confusion, etc.).

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Public Communication of Science and Technology

 

Public reception of scientific uncertainty
The case of the controversy on endocrine disrupters

Laura Maxim   Institut des Sciences de la Communication, CNRS

Pascale Mansier   Laboratoire Communication et Politique, CNRS

Natalia Grabar   Laboratoire Savoirs, Textes, Langage (STL), CNRS, Université de Lille 3, Villeneuve d’ascq Cedex

Scientific controversies are characterized by an important level of uncertainty (which is different from risk), expressed as a lack of knowledge and conflicting expert views. Furthermore, consequences of environmental problems can potentially reach many people, and this raises the question of communicating the available knowledge to the public.

However, the existing literature suggests that certain scientists and decision-makers believe that communicating uncertainty to the public will produce panic and will discredit science. We have tested this hypothesis for the controversy on the effects of endocrine disrupters (EDs) on human male fertility. The empirical set-up combined two methods, i.e., focus groups and subjective estimation of perceived uncertainty using a measurement scale proposed in the literature. Six short texts and videos were selected from a book and documentary films of science popularization and were presented to 11 groups, each made of 6 to 12 citizens. Each group met once, for 3 hours. Texts and videos were chosen as following: the 2nd, 4th and 5th contained uncertainty but the 1st, 3rd and 6th did not. After each presentation of one text and one video (having similar content), people used the scale for expressing subjective uncertainty and discussed the information received. Meetings were transcribed and annotated by 3 researchers.

Our results show that lay people raise a larger and different range of uncertainties compared to those contained in the researchers’ messages. We propose a model for the transformation of uncertainty between emission and reception. Statistical treatment of the subjective assessments of uncertainty shows significant influence of uncertainty communication by scientists on people’s judgments about the causal relationship between EDs and male fertility. Qualitative analysis of the transcripts show that, as long as public scientists (toxicologists) are concerned, instead of discrediting information previously expressed with certainty, uncertainty is often perceived optimistically as additional information and an opportunity for research. On the contrary, for private scientists, conflicts of interests are judged to be the major motivation for expressing uncertainty.

For most participants, uncertainty does not produce panic but is reassuring. Other expressed feelings and their relationship with uncertainty communication will be discussed (e.g., helplessness, feeling guilty, revolt, confusion, etc.).

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

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