Following Karl Popper’s (1976) idea that scientific theories cannot ultimately be proven true, it is widely acknowledged among researchers that scientific evidence can be rather weak or strong but never conclusive. Thus, in order to make truly informed decisions on the private and the societal level, the public has to be informed not only about the advantages and possibilities, but also about the inherent risks and uncertainties of scientific innovations. Deduced from these ideas, we propose that high-quality science communication must consider and represent scientific uncertainty (cf. Funtowicz & Ravetz, 1990). But how do people react when they are presented with information that stress the uncertainty of scientific evidence? According to the cultivation theory (Gerbner et al., 1986), the public view on science could – at least in the long run – be affected by the way science and scientific evidence is presented on TV. These effects can be positive in a sense that people form more “sophisticated beliefs” about science, but it is also possible that the presentation of uncertainty is associated with unwanted side effects, such as negative beliefs about and lower interest in science. To systematically analyze these effects, we conducted a field experiment with two experimental and three control groups (N = 700). During six weeks, the participants of the experimental groups watched a short TV clip about molecular medicine every week. These clips either presented scientific findings as uncertain or certain. Results indicate that the exposure to uncertainty leads to a more sophisticated understanding of scientific evidence, and it does not elicit lower interest in science or in the presented domain (cancer and cancer treatment). We also found that most participants do not hold science or scientists responsible for problems concerning the diagnosis or treatment of cancer, even when presented with uncertain evidence. But those who were exposed to rather certain scientific evidence were more optimistic that science might help to overcome problems with diagnosis and treatment of cancer. In sum, we can conclude that presenting science as rather uncertain might slightly reduce the enthusiasm toward science as a solution for (health) problems. But it does not lead to an overall rejection of science. On the contrary, it rather seems to foster a more sophisticated view on science.

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Effects of exposure to certain or uncertain scientific evidence in science tv shows

Andrea Retzbach   University of Koblenz-Landau, Institute of Communication Psychology and Media Education

Joachim Marschall   University of Koblenz-Landau, Institute of Communication Psychology and Media Education

Michaela Maier   University of Koblenz-Landau, Institute of Communication Psychology and Media Education

Lars Günther   Friedrich-Schiller-University Jena, Institute of Communication Research

Following Karl Popper’s (1976) idea that scientific theories cannot ultimately be proven true, it is widely acknowledged among researchers that scientific evidence can be rather weak or strong but never conclusive. Thus, in order to make truly informed decisions on the private and the societal level, the public has to be informed not only about the advantages and possibilities, but also about the inherent risks and uncertainties of scientific innovations. Deduced from these ideas, we propose that high-quality science communication must consider and represent scientific uncertainty (cf. Funtowicz & Ravetz, 1990). But how do people react when they are presented with information that stress the uncertainty of scientific evidence? According to the cultivation theory (Gerbner et al., 1986), the public view on science could – at least in the long run – be affected by the way science and scientific evidence is presented on TV. These effects can be positive in a sense that people form more “sophisticated beliefs” about science, but it is also possible that the presentation of uncertainty is associated with unwanted side effects, such as negative beliefs about and lower interest in science. To systematically analyze these effects, we conducted a field experiment with two experimental and three control groups (N = 700). During six weeks, the participants of the experimental groups watched a short TV clip about molecular medicine every week. These clips either presented scientific findings as uncertain or certain. Results indicate that the exposure to uncertainty leads to a more sophisticated understanding of scientific evidence, and it does not elicit lower interest in science or in the presented domain (cancer and cancer treatment). We also found that most participants do not hold science or scientists responsible for problems concerning the diagnosis or treatment of cancer, even when presented with uncertain evidence. But those who were exposed to rather certain scientific evidence were more optimistic that science might help to overcome problems with diagnosis and treatment of cancer. In sum, we can conclude that presenting science as rather uncertain might slightly reduce the enthusiasm toward science as a solution for (health) problems. But it does not lead to an overall rejection of science. On the contrary, it rather seems to foster a more sophisticated view on science.

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