Uncertainty - Uncertainty and The Media

Uncertainty and The Media

Uncertainty in science, and science in general, is often interpreted much differently in the public sphere than in the scientific community. This is due in part to the diversity of the public audience, and the tendency for scientists to misunderstand lay audiences and therefore not communicate ideas clearly and effectively. One example is explained by the information deficit model. Also, in the public realm, there are often many scientific voices giving input on a single topic. For example, depending on how an issue is reported in the public sphere, discrepancies between outcomes of multiple scientific studies due to methodological differences could be interpreted by the public as a lack of consensus in a situation where a consensus does in fact exist. This interpretation may even been intentionally promoted, as scientific uncertainty may be managed to reach certain goals. For example, global warming skeptics took the advice of Frank Luntz to frame global warming as an issue of scientific uncertainty, which was a precursor to the conflict frame used by journalists when reporting the issue.

“Indeterminacy can be loosely said to apply to situations in which not all the parameters of the system and their interactions are fully known, whereas ignorance refers to situations in which it is not known what is not known,”. These unknowns, indeterminacy and ignorance, that exist in science are often “transformed” into uncertainty when reported to the public in order to make issues more manageable, since scientific indeterminacy and ignorance are difficult concepts for scientists to convey without losing credibility. Conversely, uncertainty is often interpreted by the public as ignorance. The transformation of indeterminacy and ignorance into uncertainty may be related to the public’s misinterpretation of uncertainty as ignorance.

Journalists often either inflate uncertainty (making the science seem more uncertain than it really is) or downplay uncertainty (making the science seem more certain than it really is). One way that journalists inflate uncertainty is by describing new research that contradicts past research without providing context for the change Other times, journalists give scientists with minority views equal weight as scientists with majority views, without adequately describing or explaining the state of scientific consensus on the issue. In the same vein, journalists often give non-scientists the same amount of attention and importance as scientists.

Journalists may downplay uncertainty by eliminating “scientists’ carefully chosen tentative wording, and by losing these caveats the information is skewed and presented as more certain and conclusive than it really is”. Also, stories with a single source or without any context of previous research mean that the subject at hand is presented as more definitive and certain than it is in reality. There is often a “product over process” approach to science journalism that aids, too, in the downplaying of uncertainty. Finally, and most notably for this investigation, when science is framed by journalists as a triumphant quest, uncertainty is erroneously framed as “reducible and resolvable”.

Some media routines and organizational factors affect the overstatement of uncertainty; other media routines and organizational factors help inflate the certainty of an issue. Because the general public (in the United States) generally trusts scientists, when science stories are covered without alarm-raising cues from special interest organizations (religious groups, environmental organization, political factions, etc.) they are often covered in a business related sense, in an economic-development frame or a social progress frame. The nature of these frames is to downplay or eliminate uncertainty, so when economic and scientific promise are focused on early in the issue cycle, as has happened with coverage of plant biotechnology and nanotechnology in the United States, the matter in question seems more definitive and certain.

Sometimes, too, stockholders, owners, or advertising will pressure a media organization to promote the business aspects of a scientific issue, and therefore any uncertainty claims that may compromise the business interests are downplayed or eliminated.

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