Acknowledging uncertainty impacts public acceptance of climate scientists’ predictions

Abstract

Predictions about the effects of climate change cannot be made with complete certainty, so acknowledging uncertainty may increase trust in scientists and public acceptance of their messages. Here we show that this is true regarding expressions of uncertainty, unless they are also accompanied by acknowledgements of irreducible uncertainty. A representative national sample of Americans read predictions about effects of global warming on sea level that included either a worst-case scenario (high partially bounded uncertainty) or the best and worst cases (fully bounded uncertainty). Compared to a control condition, expressing fully bounded but not high partially bounded uncertainty increased trust in scientists and message acceptance. However, these effects were eliminated when fully bounded uncertainty was accompanied by an acknowledgement that the full effects of sea-level rise cannot be quantified because of unpredictable storm surges. Thus, expressions of fully bounded uncertainty alone may enhance confidence in scientists and their assertions but not when the full extent of inevitable uncertainty is acknowledged.

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Fig. 1: Mediation analysis.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available online at http://osf.io/tgmyh.

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Acknowledgements

This study was funded by the Woods Institute for the Environment and the Center for Ocean Solutions at Stanford University. The work was also supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship grant and the Shaper Family Stanford Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellowship grant to L.C.H. and the Princeton University Institute for International and Regional Studies. J.A.K. is University Fellow at Resources for the Future.

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L.C.H., B.M., J.A.K., E.M.M. and R.S. developed the study idea. L.C.H., B.M., J.A.K. and E.M.M. designed the research. L.C.H. and B.M. analysed the data. L.C.H., B.M. and J.A.K. wrote the manuscript and E.M.M. and R.S. provided revisions.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Lauren C. Howe.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Nature Climate Change thanks David Budescu, Emily Ho, Susan Joslyn and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary Notes 1–11, Tables 1–6, Figs. 1–3 and references.

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Howe, L.C., MacInnis, B., Krosnick, J.A. et al. Acknowledging uncertainty impacts public acceptance of climate scientists’ predictions. Nat. Clim. Chang. 9, 863–867 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-019-0587-5

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