Unquestioned answers or unanswered questions: beliefs about science guide responses to uncertainty in climate change risk communication

Risk Anal. 2012 Jun;32(6):992-1002. doi: 10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01771.x. Epub 2012 Feb 10.


In two experimental studies we investigated the effect of beliefs about the nature and purpose of science (classical vs. Kuhnian models of science) on responses to uncertainty in scientific messages about climate change risk. The results revealed a significant interaction between both measured (Study 1) and manipulated (Study 2) beliefs about science and the level of communicated uncertainty on willingness to act in line with the message. Specifically, messages that communicated high uncertainty were more persuasive for participants who shared an understanding of science as debate than for those who believed that science is a search for absolute truth. In addition, participants who had a concept of science as debate were more motivated by higher (rather than lower) uncertainty in climate change messages. The results suggest that achieving alignment between the general public's beliefs about science and the style of the scientific messages is crucial for successful risk communication in science. Accordingly, rather than uncertainty always undermining the effectiveness of science communication, uncertainty can enhance message effects when it fits the audience's understanding of what science is.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Climate Change
  • Communication
  • Comprehension
  • Culture*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Public Opinion*
  • Regression Analysis
  • Risk
  • Science
  • Uncertainty*
  • Young Adult