Scientists should be cognizant of how the public perceives uncertainty


Scientific results are inherently uncertain. The public views uncertainty differently than scientists. One key to understanding when and how scientific research gets misinterpreted is to understand how the public thinks about scientific uncertainty.

A recent paper in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General explores how laypersons perceive uncertainty in science. Broomell and Kane use principle component analysis to discover three underlying dimensions that describe how the public characterizes uncertainty: precision, mathematical abstraction, and temporal distance. These three dimensions, in turn, predict how people rate the quality of a research field. Precision – loosely defined in this context as the accuracy of the measurements, predictions, and conclusions drawn within a research field – is the dominating factor. One interpretation is that the public is primarily concerned with definitiveness when evaluating scientific claims.

Members of the public lose confidence when fields of study are described as being more uncertain. This is relevant for scientists to consider when communicating results. On the one hand, over-selling the certainty of an outcome can mislead. On the other hand, the public might tend to dismiss important scientific findings when researchers describe uncertainty honestly and openly, as we have seen in the public denial of vaccinations and climate change. Perceptions of a research field do not seem to influence how people view individual studies, so each study should be treated as its own communique.

Broomell et al found some evidence that personal characteristics interpret scientific uncertainty in different ways. Self-identified Republicans are more concerned about expert disagreement, while self-identified Democrats are more concerned with the quality of evidence. Such individual differences suggest the type of uncertainty surrounding scientific findings shapes the way members of the public receive of scientific claims. Consider how this might play out in medical research and informed consent. Clinical equipoise is the idea that research on human-subjects is only ethical if experts are uncertain about which treatment in a randomized trial is better. If one treatment is thought to be better than another, it is unethical to deny the preferred treatment to patients. The findings of Broomell et al suggest that the structure of uncertainty, namely unsettled evidence versus expert disagreement, is perceived differently by laypersons. Perhaps some patients are more concerned with who determines a treatment successful, while others are more concerned with why.


    title = {Scientists should be cognizant of how the public perceives uncertainty},
    journal = {STREAM research},
    author = {Daniel Benjamin},
    address = {Montreal, Canada},
    date = 2017,
    month = may,
    day = 26,
    url = {}


Daniel Benjamin. "Scientists should be cognizant of how the public perceives uncertainty" Web blog post. STREAM research. 26 May 2017. Web. 21 Jan 2019. <>


Daniel Benjamin. (2017, May 26). Scientists should be cognizant of how the public perceives uncertainty [Web log post]. Retrieved from

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