Most scientific results are afflicted with some uncertainty, especially when emerging technologies are concerned. On the one hand, there are normative and practical reasons to call for an open admission of scientific uncertainties, for example in order to enable citizens to engage in public debate, or to make informed decisions in various areas of their daily life (e.g., concerning medical treatments, or the choice between different consumer products). On the other hand, concerns about detrimental effects of uncertainty communication on the public engagement with science have been raised in the literature. The present study was conducted to investigate how the communication of scientific uncertainty in nanotechnology influences laypersons’ interest in science and new technologies, beliefs about the nature of science, and trust in scientists. In a longitudinal field experiment, 945 participants were exposed to six real-world media reports (TV features and newspaper articles) on nanotechnology. The study allowed for an exploration of the effects of two different forms of uncertainty presentation: within or across different media reports (by presenting contradicting reports consecutively). The results suggest that both forms of uncertainty communication did not change general beliefs about the nature of science: The recipients did not acquire a conception of science as a continuous struggle with uncertainties. However, no detrimental effects on the trust in scientists were observed. With respect to interest in science and new technologies, even slightly positive effects were found, especially if the uncertainty was communicated within media reports, and the recipients had a low need for cognitive closure. Taken together, the results suggest that science communicators should not be afraid of addressing scientific uncertainty associated with modern technologies. Limitations of the study, as well as suggestions for further research, and implications for science communication will be discussed.

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Public Communication of Science and Technology

 

Communicating scientific uncertainty
Media effects on public engagement with science

Michaela Maier   Institute for Communication Psychology, University of Koblenz-Landau, Germany

Andrea Retzbach   Institute for Communication Psychology, University of KoblenzLandau, Germany

Senja Post   Institute for Communication Psychology, University of Koblenz- Landau, Germany

Most scientific results are afflicted with some uncertainty, especially when emerging technologies are concerned. On the one hand, there are normative and practical reasons to call for an open admission of scientific uncertainties, for example in order to enable citizens to engage in public debate, or to make informed decisions in various areas of their daily life (e.g., concerning medical treatments, or the choice between different consumer products). On the other hand, concerns about detrimental effects of uncertainty communication on the public engagement with science have been raised in the literature. The present study was conducted to investigate how the communication of scientific uncertainty in nanotechnology influences laypersons’ interest in science and new technologies, beliefs about the nature of science, and trust in scientists. In a longitudinal field experiment, 945 participants were exposed to six real-world media reports (TV features and newspaper articles) on nanotechnology. The study allowed for an exploration of the effects of two different forms of uncertainty presentation: within or across different media reports (by presenting contradicting reports consecutively). The results suggest that both forms of uncertainty communication did not change general beliefs about the nature of science: The recipients did not acquire a conception of science as a continuous struggle with uncertainties. However, no detrimental effects on the trust in scientists were observed. With respect to interest in science and new technologies, even slightly positive effects were found, especially if the uncertainty was communicated within media reports, and the recipients had a low need for cognitive closure. Taken together, the results suggest that science communicators should not be afraid of addressing scientific uncertainty associated with modern technologies. Limitations of the study, as well as suggestions for further research, and implications for science communication will be discussed.

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

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