Communicating uncertainty about facts, numbers and science

R Soc Open Sci. 2019 May 8;6(5):181870. doi: 10.1098/rsos.181870. eCollection 2019 May.


Uncertainty is an inherent part of knowledge, and yet in an era of contested expertise, many shy away from openly communicating their uncertainty about what they know, fearful of their audience's reaction. But what effect does communication of such epistemic uncertainty have? Empirical research is widely scattered across many disciplines. This interdisciplinary review structures and summarizes current practice and research across domains, combining a statistical and psychological perspective. This informs a framework for uncertainty communication in which we identify three objects of uncertainty-facts, numbers and science-and two levels of uncertainty: direct and indirect. An examination of current practices provides a scale of nine expressions of direct uncertainty. We discuss attempts to codify indirect uncertainty in terms of quality of the underlying evidence. We review the limited literature about the effects of communicating epistemic uncertainty on cognition, affect, trust and decision-making. While there is some evidence that communicating epistemic uncertainty does not necessarily affect audiences negatively, impact can vary between individuals and communication formats. Case studies in economic statistics and climate change illustrate our framework in action. We conclude with advice to guide both communicators and future researchers in this important but so far rather neglected field.

Keywords: IPCC; economic statistics; epistemic uncertainty; grade; uncertainty communication.

Publication types

  • Review