Bifurcating road

April 4, 2012, by Brigitte Nerlich

Languages of uncertainty

Communicating scientific uncertainty

There has recently been a lot of discussion about communicating uncertainty in science in general and climate change/climate science in particular. Many scientists, including Sir Robert May and Sir John Beddington have talked about how uncertainty is intrinsic to science and have advocated being more open about uncertainty, with the latter stressing that we have to make “evidence, and associated uncertainties, accessible and explicable”. But how do we do this? Again there is no shortage of advice, from a special issue of Climatic Change devoted to this topic in the context of the IPCC, to Adam Corner providing a very sensible summary of recent psychological and sociological research on this matter, to others who recommend that communicators who know their “audience, will minimize uncertainty and use a warm, more friendly style of communication“.

Uncertainty in ordinary language

What I found astonishing when looking at these discussions (which have intensified since ‘climategate’), was the lack of any reflection on how the word ‘uncertainty’ is used ‘in the real world’, in ordinary language. Making ‘uncertainty’ ‘accessible’ is not as easy as translating the scientific notion of uncertainty into user-friendly visual images or graphs or words like ‘likely’ or ‘highly likely’. We have to know about the contexts in which such ‘translations’ occur and how the concepts we want to make ‘accessible’ interact with the words and meanings that already are accessible out there.

A brief look at risk

When looking at the word ‘risk’, the situation is quite different. Here linguists like myself have reflected on the use of the word in various contexts. When studying risk talk using corpus linguistics, we found, for example, that when ordinary people talk about risk, this happens mostly in the context of health. Other studies have followed our lead and looked at environmental risk from a linguistic perspective. Some have studied the difference in ordinary language use of the words risk and danger. And some of the insights achieved have been incorporated into studies of climate risk and climate change communication.

Uncertainty, confusion and anxiety

But what about uncertainty? How is this word used in ordinary language? I have not undertaken any in-depth research of this issue yet, but I have had a quick look at two sources, WordNet® and The Bank of English. According to WordNet®, ‘uncertainty’ has two senses: ¨uncertainty, uncertainness, precariousness — (being unsettled or in doubt or dependent on chance; ‘the uncertainty of the outcome; ‘the precariousness of his income’)” and “doubt, uncertainty, incertitude, dubiety, doubtfulness, dubiousness — (the state of being unsure of something)”. Looking at various collocations and concordances within the Bank of English, it becomes clear that ‘confusion’, ‘doubt’ and ‘controversy’, as well as ‘worry’ and ‘anxiety’ are words closely related to ‘uncertainty’. ‘Economic uncertainty’, ‘political uncertainty’  ‘considerable uncertainty’, ‘total uncertainty’, ‘huge uncertainty’, ‘confusion and uncertainty’, ‘disruption and uncertainty’, ‘dark cloud of uncertainty’, etc. are phrases found in texts, from books to spoken conversations (see the extract from ‘British Magazines’). Overall then, uncertainty has highly negative connotations and it seems that it needs to be either ‘tolerated’ or ‘removed’.

Outside the texts I surveyed in the Bank of English, uncertainty is now also used in phrases like ‘sowing uncertainty’, ‘manufacturing uncertainty/doubt’, ‘producing uncertainty’. These are phrases used by people who examine a communicative scene where uncertainty is actively and politically used as a weapon in debates about climate change for example, something rather novel that needs a separate blog (and probably, in due course, a new entry in the Oxford English Dictionary).

Uncertainty and the progress/process of science

This is quite different to the use of the word uncertainty in science, where, on the whole, uncertainty doesn’t induce existential angst, anxiety and stress; is not seen as a threat; and is not used as a weapon. All measurements in science contain elements of uncertainty, which can be estimated. There might be doubt, but even that is, generally, regarded as a good thing. Reduction of uncertainty is the aim, but total removal would be regarded with suspicion rather than relief. Uncertainty is what makes science work and provides work for scientists. It is, on the whole, a good thing; it makes scientific life interesting. This is an aspect of uncertainty that scientists have focused on from Feynman to Firestein.

Uncertainty and climate change

However, in the context of climate change uncertainty should perhaps worry us more than we might like and in different ways. Until recently ‘uncertainty’ has been used as a ‘stick to beat’ science and scientists. The argument went that because science was too uncertain no action on climate change needed to be taken. This argument seems no longer to stand up to scientific scrutiny and it appears that “uncertainty should make us worry more than certainty, because uncertainty means that things can be worse than our best guess.” This means that, in the context of climate change, scientific uncertainty (related to sensitivity, probability, prediction etc. – all things ordinary language does not touch) also gains rather negative connotations. The question then becomes: How do you communicate uncertainty in the context of climate change without opening the floodgates to anxiety, stress and worry, that is, without conjuring up a ‘dark cloud of uncertainty’ that leads to paralysis and inaction? I am not sure, in fact I am quite uncertain!


An interdisciplinary group of academics led by Professor Sarah Metcalfe will explore the challenges of ‘Representing and communicating uncertainty: climate change and risk’ in two workshops funded by an AHRC, Science in Culture Exploratory Award (work linked to the University’s Natural Hazards and Disaster Mitigation Working Group). For further information on the AHRC award please email:

PS, added 4 January 2013: Analysis of various types of uncertainty in the context of climate change (mitigation).

PSS, addes 19, February: on uncertainty and risk communication after the l’Aquila earthquake, good article by Helene Joffe

Brigitte Nerlich, Institute for Science and Society, School of Sociology and Social Policy, PI ESRC climate change project


Posted in Climate ChangeUncertainty