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Certainly uncertain

Posted by on July 10, 2013

By Natasha Neill, Executive Officer at the Society of Biology.

At the World Conference of Science Journalists on Thursday 27th June, Sense About Science released their guide Making Sense of Uncertainty, exploring the truth about uncertainty in science, and why it’s not something we should be afraid of.

Written in collaboration with researchers working in some of the most significant, cutting edge fields, it sends a strong message to the public and policy makers that being discouraged by uncertainty has serious consequences. By doubting science, we miss out on important discussions about the development of new drugs, taking action to mitigate the impact of natural hazards, how to respond to the changing climate and to pandemic threats

If a researcher working in climate science, disease modelling, epidemiology, weather forecasting or natural hazard prediction tell us how uncertain they are about their work, we should feel a sense of relief. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we cannot make decisions – we might well have ‘operational knowledge’ – but it does mean that there is greater confidence about what is known and unknown.

The report describes:

  • the way scientists use uncertainty to express how confident they are about results
  • that uncertainty can be abused to undermine evidence or to suggest anything could be true: from alternative cancer treatments to anthropogenic CO2 not changing the atmosphere
  • why uncertainty is not a barrier to taking action – decision makers usually look for a higher level of certainty for an operational decision (such as introducing body scanners in airports) than for a decision based on broader ideology or politics (such as reducing crime rates)

Making Sense of Uncertainty focuses us on the right question to ask when evaluating evidence, “What do we need to know to make a decision? And do we know it?”.

The report is available for download at the Sense About Science website. For hard copies of the report, or any further information, please contact Tabitha Innocent on or Sense About Science on +44 (0)20 7490 9590 or

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