Making Sense of Uncertainty

UK organisation Sense About Science has just published a guide to uncertainty in science. Aimed at igniting public debate as well as informing policy makers and journalists, the guide looks at how scientists use uncertainty to express confidence in results, how uncertainty can be used to undermine evidence and why uncertainty should not be barrier to action.

The guide was launched this week at the World Conference of Science Journalists  in Helsinki, where researchers and journalists discussed the impact of misunderstanding uncertainty on public opinion and progress. For example, uncertainty in the extent or causes of climate change can prevent policy makers from taking firm action. Other areas where uncertainty influences policies include developing new drugs or taking action against pandemics.

A BBC radio programme this week (Material World, BBC radio 4, also featured an interview with two of the Making Sense of Uncertainty working group, Professor Angela Mclean, University of Oxford and Professor Ian Stewart, University of Warwick. In one part of this programme, the discussion turned to the public perception of risk, and how risk needs to be understood alongside uncertainty when making complex decisions such as whether to build a nuclear power station. As Prof Stewart explained, the risk of an accident may be a million to one, but if a million people are affected the impact is immense. People do not view this question the same way as a risky activity a 2:1 chance of an accident, but which only affects two people.

And perhaps a rebranding is in order. Professor Sir Michael Rawlins, Chair of the UK National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) suggests the term “uncertainty” can cause problems:

“The term ‘uncertainty’ is unquestionably fraught with misinterpretation – especially for non-scientists. I’d prefer the phrase ‘how confident am I?’, the reciprocal of uncertainty.”

For more information see the Sense about Science homepage, or download a copy of the guide here:

Image courtesy of jscreationzs at


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