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Scientific Uncertainty in Health and Risk Messaging  

Stephen Zehr

Expressions of scientific uncertainty are normal features of scientific articles and professional presentations. Journal articles typically include research questions at the beginning, probabilistic accounts of findings in the middle, and new research questions at the end. These uncertainty claims are used to construct clear boundaries between uncertain and certain scientific knowledge. Interesting questions emerge, however, when scientific uncertainty is communicated in occasions for public science (e.g., newspaper accounts of science, scientific expertise in political deliberations, science in stakeholder claims directed to the public, and so forth). Scientific uncertainty is especially important in the communication of environmental and health risks where public action is expected despite uncertain knowledge. Public science contexts are made more complex by the presence of multiple actors such as citizen-scientists, journalists, stakeholders, social movement actors, politicians, and so on who perform important functions in the communication and interpretation of scientific information and bring in diverse norms and values. A past assumption among researchers was that scientists would deemphasize or ignore uncertainties in these situations to better match their claims with a public perception of science as an objective, truth-building institution. However, more recent research indicates variability in the likelihood that scientists communicate uncertainties and in the public reception and use of uncertainty claims. Many scientists still believe that scientific uncertainty will be misunderstood by the public and misused by interest groups involved with an issue, while others recognize a need to clearly translate what is known and not known. Much social science analysis of scientific uncertainty in public science views it as a socially constructed phenomenon, where it depends less upon a particular state of scientific research (what scientists are certain and uncertain of) and more upon contextual factors, the actors involved, and the meanings attached to scientific claims. Scientific uncertainty is often emergent in public science, both in the sense that the boundary between what is certain and uncertain can be managed and manipulated by powerful actors and in the sense that as scientific knowledge confronts diverse public norms, values, local knowledges, and interests new areas of uncertainty emerge. Scientific uncertainty may emerge as a consequence of social conflict rather than being its cause. In public science scientific uncertainty can be interpreted as a normal state of affairs and, in the long run, may not be that detrimental to solving societal problems if it opens up new avenues and pathways for thinking about solutions. Of course, the presence of scientific uncertainty can also be used to legitimate inaction.