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One solution to decrease variability in interpretation could be to supplement verbal expressions with numeric information: research has demonstrated that this can be effective in increasing alignment between people's interpretation and the intended meaning of words in a predefined categorization e. However, recent research on expressions of future including aleatory uncertainty indicates that including numeric information may not reduce the extremity effect [ ].

Another form of verbal uncertainty communication involves simply listing various possibilities or mentioning uncertainty through, for example, caveats. Such general statements about scientific uncertainty can cover both uncertainty about the object in question e. They focused on mentioning disagreement or controversy among scientists through a lack of context in which to interpret the meaning of the findings.

Their results showed that news stories that included expert disagreement increased people's perceptions of uncertainty about climate science, whereas news stories that included context decreased perceptions of uncertainty. These findings appear to be quite general. Indeed, when quantifiable facts, such as the scientific consensus on climate change and vaccine safety, are contested implicitly through caveats or expert disagreement, perceived uncertainty about the science typically increases [ — ]. Yet, exceptions do exist. For example, research in the context of emerging technologies found that verbally highlighting broad scientific uncertainty about nanotechnology did not meaningfully change more general beliefs about the uncertainty of scientific evidence [ ].

A large literature in psychology illustrates that people process uncertain information in two qualitatively different ways: Slovic et al. Although the functional, anatomical and psychological differences between these two systems have not gone without criticism e.

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In addition, people's emotions and affective reactions exert an important influence on decision-making [ — ]. Comparatively, there is less work on affect than on cognition in the context of epistemic uncertainty communication specifically. We could not find any prior studies that have explored the emotional effects of full or summary probability distributions expressions i and ii or predefined categories and qualifying statements expressions iv and v.

The effects of communicating uncertainty on people's emotions have been studied to some extent in the medical domain. For example, in a number of focus groups with 48 American adults, Han et al. In a series of follow-up studies, Han et al.

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The results indicated that compared to no uncertainty, presenting uncertainty as a numerical range in text increased people's reported levels of worry about developing colon cancer and perceived risk, but in a visual format uncertainty decreased worry and risk. A follow-up experiment comparing a range being presented in text or in combined visual-text formats did not yield any significant differences in worry and perceived risk between the text and visual formats.

This research suggests that epistemic uncertainty might influence emotional responses, but that the exact form of communication matters and that more research is needed to gain a better understanding of how people's affective reactions are shaped by the communication of scientific uncertainty. This work also found some potential influences of individual differences.

They found that people high in dispositional optimism reported less cancer-related worry after being shown a cancer risk estimate with uncertainty communicated as a range compared to just the point estimate. In the first of two experiments, they asked people to imagine participating in a game in which they won a prize: a prize that was either certain two conditions: definitely winning a CD versus definitely a dinner or a prize that was uncertain they were told to imagine that they won either a CD or a dinner.

Participants who were presented with an uncertain prize reported to be less happy, less satisfied and felt less good than students in either of the certain prize conditions. In the second experiment, participants were asked to imagine winning one of two certain prizes or the uncertain prize in a lottery, but subsequently to imagine they had lost their lottery ticket and would not be able to claim the prize. In this case, participants who were presented with an uncertain prize reported feeling less unpleasant, disappointed and bad than participants in both certain prize conditions.

This research suggests that communicating uncertainty as a list of possibilities about a fact which prize people won can either dampen or heighten people's emotional responses to this fact. Jensen et al. The results across these studies were inconsistent: their first research [ ] found a decrease in cancer fatalism and a marginally significant decrease in nutritional backlash for people who had read news stories that contained higher levels of scientific uncertainty. Follow-up research [ ], however, did not find an effect of uncertainty on cancer fatalism and nutritional backlash, but did find a decrease in fatalism and nutritional backlash for people who had read news stories that depicted disclosure in which uncertainty statements were attributed to the key researchers covered in the news story rather than expert disagreement.

Overall, it appears that more research is needed in order to gain a better understanding of the effects of epistemic uncertainty about science, facts and numbers on people's affective and emotional reactions.

In short, the limited research described above reports inconsistent results: it appears that communicating uncertainty can have an impact on people's emotions, but that the nature of the impact might be dependent on how emotions are defined and measured as well as how uncertainty interacts with other characteristics of the communication. People's relationship with trust is asymmetrical: it takes a long time to forge but can be destroyed in an instant [ ].

At a generic level, there are some near-universal aspects of human social cognition that assist people in determining whom and what information to trust. Affect and cognition fuse together here in establishing trust. More generally, a decline in public trust of regulators and industry has been observed [ ]. Yet, whether greater transparency in the communication of uncertainty will enhance credibility and public trust remains an open empirical question [ ].

On the one hand, presenting information as certain when it is not is misleading and can damage and undermine public trust. Thus, emphasizing uncertainty may help signal transparency and honesty. On the other hand, explicitly conveying scientific uncertainty may be used as a tool to politicize science [ ], or to undermine the perceived competence of the communicator as people tend to use precision as a cue for judging expertise [ ]. Research into how the communication of scientific uncertainty impacts trust and credibility is very sparse, and we found examples from only three forms of expression of uncertainty.

However, in a similar follow-up study, results were more mixed where equal numbers agreed and disagreed about perceived honesty [ 99 ]. Similarly, in a series of small focus groups, Schapira et al.

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The representation of uncertainty through a confidence interval led to confusion and decreased trust in the information for women in the less-educated groups. Similar results have been found for individual differences in numeracy [ ]. Yet Lipkus et al. In the context of individualized colorectal cancer risk, Han and colleagues [ 84 ] also found no main effect of uncertainty confidence interval versus point estimate or format visual versus text on perceived credibility, which included a measure of trust.

Similarly, Kuhn [ ], using a relatively small student sample, evaluated four communication formats point estimate, verbal uncertainty, numerical range and biased range across five aleatory and epistemic environmental hazards and found no main effect of uncertainty on trust in science or government.

By contrast, van der Bles et al. Some research has studied the effect of mentioning uncertainty, typically a combination of uncertainty about an object and uncertainty about the underlying quality or strength of evidence, on trust and credibility. Jensen [ ] found that people viewed both scientists and journalists as more trustworthy when they had read news stories presenting higher levels of uncertainty that were attributed to the primary scientists disclosure, compared to expert disagreement.

There were no effects on the perceived expertise of scientists and journalists.


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Yet, other work shows that when uncertainty is introduced through a conflict between experts e. To some extent, uncertainty created through divergent scientific perspectives may be dependent on context. Such verbal disclosure of uncertainty did not undermine public trust in health protection. On the other hand, verbal uncertainty expressed through caveats and limitations e.

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In sum, until more research is conducted, it is difficult to make firm conclusions about these mixed findings across domains about the way and extent to which communicating uncertainty affects the perceived credibility of and trust in both the message and the communicator. For many communicators, the most important aspect of communicating uncertainty is its effect on people's behaviour and decision-making. This is particularly relevant in the context of decision-making under uncertainty, for example, in medical or policy-relevant contexts.

Although we recognize the large literature on ambiguity aversion [ 94 , ], to our knowledge there has been no systematic empirical investigation of the effect of epistemic uncertainty communication on people's behaviour and decision-making. Nonetheless, somewhat scattered results do exist and there have been some broadly relevant studies.

In a hypothetical decision-making scenario involving a vacation package, students who were uncertain about a verifiable fact e. Although hypothetical, these results suggest that communicating uncertainty may lead people to postpone their decision-making in some contexts. By contrast, much more research exists when it comes to aleatory uncertainty about the future.

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For example, Morton et al. They found that uncertainty communication increased decision quality and trust in the forecast. In particular, participants in the uncertainty condition took appropriate precautionary action and withheld unnecessary action more often than participants in the deterministic forecast condition. Similarly, Driver et al. Specifically, the authors found that representing financial disclosure a risk-return indicator pictorially helped people better rank funds according to their risk and return profile and better assess their suitability when making financial decisions.

It therefore seems clear that uncertainty has the potential to influence decision-making across domains, from medical decision-making to consumer and environmental behaviour, but more systematic research is needed to investigate explicitly how epistemic uncertainty influences human behaviour and decision-making.

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As Raftery recommended in the context of probabilistic forecasting [ ], this will involve research that bears in mind the diversity and types of audiences; and the psychological impact that the presentation of uncertainty has on its audience. Although the scattered evidence available suggests that communicating direct epistemic uncertainty does affect people's cognition, emotion, trust, and behaviour and decision-making, little has been done within a systematic framework—identifying the aspects of the communication that are being manipulated and therefore delineating their precise effects.

Even within a framework, such as the one we have suggested, being systematic is very difficult: formats are inevitably correlated with the precision of the expression, with numbers having the most potential to convey the most precise information and verbal expressions the least, and so any attempt to vary format will often also vary the expression. The content is essentially different. Audience reactions to different magnitudes of uncertainty would also seem an important cognitive outcome for communication of epistemic uncertainty.

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  7. However, there appear to be few empirical studies investigating this phenomenon: initial work in the context of a fictitious news article [ ] showed no change in the public's trust in either the number communicated or the communicators of the uncertainty when different magnitudes of uncertainty were communicated as a numeric range.

    It may well be that uncertainty needs to be put into context for a non-specialist audience in order for its magnitude to be of any relevance. Without specialist knowledge of a subject, it may be impossible for an audience to judge whether a given magnitude of uncertainty is important or not. Considering the literature on the psychological effects of different expressions of uncertainty, however, suggests several interesting preliminary findings. We can be relatively confident that there is substantial individual variability in how people understand uncertainty through verbal qualifying statements or predefined distributions.

    This can lead to a gap between how people understand the communication of uncertainty and the actual intention of the communicator.