Uncertainty As a Trigger for a Paradigm Change in Science Communication

Monday, 15 December 2014
Simon Schneider, Free University of Berlin, Berlin, Germany; GEOTECHNOLOGIEN, Potsdam, Germany
Over the last decade, the need to communicate uncertainty increased. Climate sciences and environmental sciences have faced massive propaganda campaigns by global industry and astroturf organizations. These organizations use the deep societal mistrust in uncertainty to point out alleged unethical and intentional delusion of decision makers and the public by scientists and their consultatory function. Scientists, who openly communicate uncertainty of climate model calculations, earthquake occurrence frequencies, or possible side effects of genetic manipulated semen have to face massive campaigns against their research, and sometimes against their person and live as well. Hence, new strategies to communicate uncertainty have to face the societal roots of the misunderstanding of the concept of uncertainty itself. Evolutionary biology has shown, that human mind is well suited for practical decision making by its sensory structures. Therefore, many of the irrational concepts about uncertainty are mitigated if data is presented in formats the brain is adapted to understand. At the end, the impact of uncertainty to the decision-making process is finally dominantly driven by preconceptions about terms such as uncertainty, vagueness or probabilities.

Parallel to the increasing role of scientific uncertainty in strategic communication, science communicators for example at the Research and Development Program GEOTECHNOLOGIEN developed a number of techniques to master the challenge of putting uncertainty in the focus. By raising the awareness of scientific uncertainty as a driving force for scientific development and evolution, the public perspective on uncertainty is changing. While first steps to implement this process are under way, the value of uncertainty still is underestimated in the public and in politics. Therefore, science communicators are in need for new and innovative ways to talk about scientific uncertainty.