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Communicating uncertainty – 7 tips

Risk and uncertainty is inherent in most research projects. Much of the information generated by research is not absolute and may change as new information emerges.

This can make it difficult for researchers to communicate with people other than their peers and colleagues, especially when communicating with government decision makers about controversial issues.

Researchers want to give foolproof information to maintain their credibility, while others need to make decisions on the best available information.

So it’s important to plan how you communicate risk and uncertainty.

You need to carefully design your messages and develop an open and transparent process.

Why it can be hard to communicate uncertainty

  • Technical data can be complex. Research related to areas such as risk assessment is often complex and difficult to express in simple language. It often involves probabilities or management options that are hard to interpret in terms of risk.
  • Science does not progress without ‘disagreements’. When there is scientific uncertainty or ‘risk’, there is usually also scientific disagreement about the level of risk or the interpretation of the data. The problem is compounded by people’s general perception that science is ‘always right’.
  • The peer-review process takes time. The traditional process of peer review means that scientists are generally unwilling to communicate their research before the data has been accepted by accredited colleagues. This can delay the communication of important data and increase the level of concern and conflict for those affected by, involved in, or interested in the issue.

7 tips for communicating ‘uncertain’ technical information

  1. Find out what people want to know. What you think is important and what others think is important may differ greatly. While it is important to communicate information you consider critical, you need to consider the concerns of the people who are involved, affected or interested.
  2. Acknowledge the uncertainties. This will help your long-term credibility and help to educate people about the nature of scientific research.
  3. Put information into perspective. It is important not to raise expectations beyond what can be delivered, and to not minimise risks. People need enough information to feel confident in making their own decisions.
  4. Release information early. Delays in releasing critical information can lead to:
  • uninformed decision-making by people affected
  • claims of a cover-up and subsequent loss of credibility
  • a build-up of prejudiced attitudes or emotions
  • reactive communication strategies.
  1. Take care when simplifying information. Maintain a fine balance between giving too much complex information and too little.
  2. Listen! It is as important to listen to people and understand their perceptions, concerns, and needs as it is to inform them.
  3. Avoiding interaction with interested or affected people is a recipe for trouble. Get them involved early and consult them regularly.