28 August 2017

Communicating uncertainty in research to the public

Posted by Shane Hanlon

By Madeleine Jepsen. This is the second of a two-part series on communicating uncertainty. 

Whether it’s a congressman drafting legislation or a family member asking about your research at Thanksgiving dinner, explaining uncertainty in research to a lay audience is an important part of science communication. Recently, Joseph Guillaume, a postdoctoral fellow at Aalto University, published an analysis of how uncertainty is verbally communicated in scientific publications using abstracts from papers in Water Resources Research.

While communicating with other scientists is much different than communicating with a lay audience, the same points Guillaume suggested in his paper can also be extended into advice for communicating uncertainty to an audience who isn’t familiar with the topic. Unlike in a scientific paper, where some information can be implied or assumed, the same cannot be said for a lay audience:

  • Maturity of a claim: acknowledge that a finding may only be a step in the journey to the final answer, and explain how much more work and what steps are needed to answer the overarching question. It may not be clear to a lay audience how this particular project fits into the bigger picture of what has already been done.
  • The scope of a claim: communicate the circumstances to which a claim applies, and making clear any exceptions that may exist.
  • Level of belief: distinguishing claims that are based on sufficient evidence, and which are speculations of the author.
  • Depth of analysis: make it clear if an estimate is approximate and give an idea of how much leeway it has, or build the strength of a claim by triangulating multiple types of evidence that support a claim.
  • Relatability: connect the claim to the audience’s prior knowledge, and try to anticipate potential objection and the root source of misunderstandings. Claims made in a scientific paper and the uncertainty surrounding them can be easily misinterpreted by a lay audience.

Guillaume acknowledged there may be other types of uncertainty framing not covered in his paper, and the types of framing needed may be different for different divisions of science. However, his points serve as a good conversation-starter about an important part of science that is sometimes neglected.

“I suppose the first thing is that if scientists aren’t aware of how they are communicating these things to each other, they don’t have much chance of choosing the right way to communicate to a lay audience,” Guillaume said. “I think to some extent, the higher-level concepts [of communicating uncertainty] are quite broadly applicable.”

Madeleine Jepsen is a public information intern at AGU, and Joseph Guillaume is a postdoctoral fellow at Aalto University, Finland, and visiting fellow at the Australian National University. Joseph’s uncertainty research can be found here, and more information about uncertainty in scientific research can be found at The Society for Decision Making Under Deep Uncertainty’s website, and at the website describing sessions on hydrologic uncertainty at AGU’s 2017 fall meeting.