Hitting the breaks on the hype train; how audiences perceive uncertainty in science
Title: How the public evaluates media representations of uncertain science: An integrated explanatory framework
Author(s) and Year: Chelsea L. Ratcliff and Rebekah Wicke, 2022
Journal: Public Understanding of Science (closed access)
TL;DR: In this article, the authors demonstrate that describing research as either “certain” or “uncertain” has little effect on audience trust in scientists and their work. Instead, audiences pay note to who is communicating uncertainty in communications. When the researchers themselves disclosed uncertainty, they were perceived as more objective. On the other hand, when scientists not part of the study shared uncertainty disclosure, the participants trusted the study less.
Why I chose this paper: Science is incredibly dynamic and uncertain by nature. Scientific conclusions can change with just a single experiment! Being transparent about this is crucial for increasing trust between researchers and the general public, particularly given reports showing declining public confidence in scientists.
“How sure are you about that?”
The recent court sentencing of Elizabeth Holmes, former CEO of the now-dissolved health technology company Theranos, was a national wake-up call. Beyond the multi-million dollar fraud, scientists and media alike faced a fact: exaggerating scientific claims is dangerous. Beyond legal matters, inaccurately portraying scientific discoveries by “hyping them up” can increase public doubt in research.
Recall 2020 and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic across the US — the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) continuously updated protection guidelines every few months. The best ways to avoid getting sick shifted continuously as new information about the virus was discovered. Yet, these shifts proved confusing for the general public and often manifested in distrust and disregard.
For scientists, sudden changes like these are expected — new studies reveal insights that influence how we understand and approach problems.
However, scientists risk losing the general public’s trust when research conclusions change. This is why it is crucial to be transparent about the certainty of results and conclusions in communications about emerging scientific discoveries. Nevertheless, the evidence on the best way to do this is unclear.
Some scientists believe general audiences are uncomfortable or confused by scientific uncertainty and respond negatively to its disclosure. It can cause a loss of faith in scientists and the research itself. Other researchers reason that non-experts understand that science is inherently uncertain and are receptive to such disclosures, instead seeing it as a marker of objectivity and transparency. However, these discussions don’t fully explain how the communications of uncertainty themselves affect public perception.
Noting this, scientists from the Department of Communication Studies at the University of Georgia used surveys to evaluate a framework that describes audience perception of uncertainty disclosures. The survey included factors such as who is providing the disclosure, the audience’s willingness to participate in research given disclosure, and the audience’s preference in receiving information about uncertainty.
Measuring audience perception of uncertainty
Chelsea L. Ratcliff and Rebekah Wicke aimed to build on prior research describing how uncertainty disclosures affect audience perception.
To do this, the authors created modified versions of an article from the American news magazine Newsweek that reported on newly discovered genetic markers for depression. The original article contained elements of scientific uncertainty about the generalizability, validity, and reliability of the scientific findings and uncertainty about the usefulness of this discovery for treating and preventing depression.
While the article already contained statements about the study from the affiliated scientists (those that conducted the research), Ratcliffe and Wicke added additional interpretive statements of (un)certainty about the study’s findings by unaffiliated scientists (those communicating about research that they have not conducted themselves) from other sources, as well as statements from fictional outside scientists. An example of such a statement is seen below:
"We need more research to understand whether these genetic risk factors will translate to improved prevention and treatment"
The researchers randomly assigned study participants to read one of four versions of the news article, according to the table below:
Similar to previous researchers, data from Ratcliffe and Wicke show that depicting the discoveries in the article as certain or uncertain had little effect on the audiences’ trust in the scientists, the credibility of the report, or their willingness to participate in future research. In fact, the surveyed audience thought the scientists and data were more credible when presented as uncertain.
More interestingly, the authors found that the credibility of the news was significantly higher only when scientists affiliated with the study disclosed the research’s limitations and caveats. When unaffiliated scientists declared uncertainty, the credibility of the research was the lowest.
These results demonstrate an essential aspect of uncertainty disclosures: audiences are looking at who is saying what. It would seem that audiences are more receptive to being told that research is uncertain directly from the researchers themselves rather than other scientists.
The importance of the source in audience perception
Beyond uncertainty being an integral part of the human experience, it is equally present in the scientific method (a most human endeavor, ultimately). Research already shows that disclosing these uncertainties is not detrimental to how audiences perceive the trustworthiness of science. On the contrary, these disclosures often increase the credibility of scientific communications.
Ratcliffe and Wicke add much-needed factors to this conclusion. Their findings indicate that it’s not simply a matter of discussing uncertainty but also who is disclosing it in the first place. Science communicators should note these additional factors when writing about emerging discoveries. For example, communicators should emphasize when affiliated scientific authors have disclosed uncertainty. This can be done in direct quotes about uncertainty, asking the scientists about uncertain conclusions, or even asking a valid question: “How sure are you of these findings?” These approaches can ensure communications with the public foster trust, not skepticism, towards new scientific information.
Edited by: Caroline Cencer & Niveen Abi Ghannam
Cover image credit: Monstera