Unquestioned answers or unanswered questions?

Under certain circumstances, uncertainty can enhance – not undermine – the effectiveness of a message about climate change

In this guest blog Dr Anna Rabinovich, a specialist in climate change communication based at the University of Exeter, reveals new findings that have important implications for communicating uncertainty in climate science.

Uncertainty is an inherent part of scientific inquiry, and progress often means quantifying rather than eliminating it. Yet communicating uncertainty has become a central problem in translating scientific knowledge about climate change to the general public, sometimes resulting in public disengagement and mistrust. But is uncertainty really such an impenetrable barrier for science communication?

Our recent research suggests that it may not necessarily be so. In a recently published set of studies Thomas Morton and I found that people’s responses to uncertainty in climate science messages depended on what they think the purpose of science is, and under certain circumstances, uncertainty actually enhanced a message’s effectiveness.

There are broadly two ways of thinking about science and its purpose. According to the “classical” model of science, the aim of science is to uncover the objective truth about the physical world and to provide a solid proof of the validity of this knowledge.

This model suggests that there is a single version of truth to be discovered: True knowledge is exempt from debate because it can be unquestionably proven. Thus, the classical model of science presents good science as a set of unquestioned answers—it suggests that each question has one correct answer that needs to be discovered.

According to the alternative “Kuhnian” model of thinking about science (named after the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn), science is a series of debates and conflicts, with dominant ‘paradigms’ (ways of understanding the world) emerging and then being replaced by new ideas. Here, the function of science is to debate these different paradigms. The “Kuhnian” model of science presents good science as a set of unanswered questions—it assumes that most scientific questions have a number of possible answers.

We predicted that people who viewed science as a search for absolute truth (i.e., a classical model of science) would be demotivated by uncertainty in scientific statements because uncertainty is inconsistent with what they see science to be. Conversely, for people who viewed science as a forum for debating different positions and perspectives (i.e., a Khunian model of science), the presence of uncertainty in scientific statements should not be demotivating because uncertainty is consistent with how they see science.

We tested this prediction in two experimental studies by exploring intentions to engage in pro-environmental behaviour following exposure to scientific messages about climate change containing different levels of uncertainty.

In the first study, we premeasured participants’ (members of the general public) beliefs about science in terms of the two models of science described above. That is, we assessed whether people believed that scientific questions have only one correct answer (a classical model) versus multiple possible answers (a Khunian model).

We then presented participants with a number of climate science statements with different degrees of uncertainty (e.g. “There is 80% chance that global warming may make more than a quarter of all species extinct”), and assessed participants’ intentions to act in an environmentally sustainable way as an indicator of whether the message was motivating or demotivating.

We found that for participants who believed that scientific questions can have multiple answers (i.e., who adopted a Kuhnian model of science), uncertainty was not demotivating. In fact, these participants responded to high uncertainty about impacts of climate change by increasing their willingness to act in a sustainable way. This contrasted from participants who adopted a more classical model of science – these participants were unresponsive to the level of communicated uncertainty.

In the second study (with a different set of participants) we asked participants to read a short text about the “nature of science”. For half of the participants, this suggested that the purpose of science was to debate different versions of truth, not to uncover absolute truth, that all scientific findings are inherently uncertain, and that good science is explicit about uncertainties involved.

The other half read text which suggested that the purpose of science is to uncover unquestionable truth, that uncertainty is a sign of imperfect knowledge, and that as science progresses it is able to offer clear answers that do not allow alternative interpretations.

We then asked participants to read the same statements about climate science as in the first study. We found that people who had read that science is a debate (rather than search for absolute truth) were more motivated to act in response to messages that contained a higher level of uncertainty than by less uncertain messages.

In contrast, participants who had read about the classical model of science demonstrated the opposite effect.
Thus, scientific information with a higher level of uncertainty about the risks was more motivating when it corresponded to participants’ (induced) beliefs about science. Uncertainty in science does not always undermine willingness to act in line with scientific messages. In fact, uncertainty can be motivating for those who share the concept of science as debate.

Implications for communicating climate science

Our results suggest that pre-existing beliefs about science are at least as important for stimulating action in line with scientific information as the message itself, and the fit between the two is crucial. This means that rather than avoiding communicating uncertainty altogether, climate science communicators should make an effort to understand beliefs held by the recipients of their messages.

Rather than simplifying and reframing scientific messages in an attempt to make them acceptable for the general public, communicators might consider shaping their audience’s understanding of what science actually is. In this way, one could attempt to prepare the public for the levels of uncertainty prevalent in contemporary science, and present this uncertainty as a sign of a deeper understanding of the subject rather than a sign of falling short of the scientific ideal.

Rabinovich, A., Morton, T.A. (2012). Unquestioned answers or unanswered questions: Beliefs about science guide responses to uncertainty in climate change risk communication. Risk Analysis, 32, 992-1002.

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