How does the communication of scientific uncertainty influence citizens’ engagement with emerging complex societal issues such as climate change, nanotechnology and the use of genetic modification in agriculture? Scientists, issue advocates and professional communicators often assume that the communication of scientific uncertainty impedes engagement with these and other issues and discourages the use of scientific knowledge in policymaking. Among other things, communication of uncertainty is assumed to negatively impact the use of scientific information both by decreasing confidence in experts and by providing ammunition to special interest groups. As a result, science communicators are sometimes wary of fully recognizing and discussing valid scientific uncertainties that exist regarding emerging issues (e.g., impact of un-quantified factors). Although uncertainty clearly influences citizens’ and policymakers’ judgment and decision-making processes, the direction of the effects is not always towards rejection of science as a tool for informed decision-making. Indeed, the presence of uncertainty (which is itself a near certainty in the context of emerging issues) often acts as a catalyst for forward-looking action. I examine these complex dynamics in the context of global climate change, which provides a paradigmatic example of an emerging issue that requires communicators to make difficult decisions regarding the communication of uncertain (scientific) information (e.g., regarding future timing and severity of future impacts). I begin by carefully reviewing the rapidly growing body of research that has explored the impact of communicating uncertainty on individuals’ climate change beliefs and engagement; this work reveals numerous effects of uncertainty as well as multiple proximal psychological mechanisms by which uncertain climate information impacts scientific citizenship. I then briefly report results from experimental work that tests the impact of communicating varying levels of uncertainty on individuals’ climate change beliefs and policy preferences. I also explicitly examine how the communication of such uncertainty influences trust in climate scientists, a factor known to influence acceptance of science-based messages. I conclude by discussing the implications of my own and others’ findings for the effective communication of uncertain scientific information across numerous emerging societal issues.

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Public Communication of Science and Technology

 

Communicating scientific uncertainty
Implications for citizen engagement with emerging issues

Ezra Markowitz   Columbia University - Princeton University, United States

How does the communication of scientific uncertainty influence citizens’ engagement with emerging complex societal issues such as climate change, nanotechnology and the use of genetic modification in agriculture? Scientists, issue advocates and professional communicators often assume that the communication of scientific uncertainty impedes engagement with these and other issues and discourages the use of scientific knowledge in policymaking. Among other things, communication of uncertainty is assumed to negatively impact the use of scientific information both by decreasing confidence in experts and by providing ammunition to special interest groups. As a result, science communicators are sometimes wary of fully recognizing and discussing valid scientific uncertainties that exist regarding emerging issues (e.g., impact of un-quantified factors). Although uncertainty clearly influences citizens’ and policymakers’ judgment and decision-making processes, the direction of the effects is not always towards rejection of science as a tool for informed decision-making. Indeed, the presence of uncertainty (which is itself a near certainty in the context of emerging issues) often acts as a catalyst for forward-looking action. I examine these complex dynamics in the context of global climate change, which provides a paradigmatic example of an emerging issue that requires communicators to make difficult decisions regarding the communication of uncertain (scientific) information (e.g., regarding future timing and severity of future impacts). I begin by carefully reviewing the rapidly growing body of research that has explored the impact of communicating uncertainty on individuals’ climate change beliefs and engagement; this work reveals numerous effects of uncertainty as well as multiple proximal psychological mechanisms by which uncertain climate information impacts scientific citizenship. I then briefly report results from experimental work that tests the impact of communicating varying levels of uncertainty on individuals’ climate change beliefs and policy preferences. I also explicitly examine how the communication of such uncertainty influences trust in climate scientists, a factor known to influence acceptance of science-based messages. I conclude by discussing the implications of my own and others’ findings for the effective communication of uncertain scientific information across numerous emerging societal issues.

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