Does Scientific Uncertainty in News Articles Affect Readers’ Trust and Decision-Making?

Open Access Journal | ISSN: 2183-2439

Article | Open Access

Does Scientific Uncertainty in News Articles Affect Readers’ Trust and Decision-Making?


  • Friederike Hendriks Department of Psychology and Sport Studies, University of Münster, Germany
  • Regina Jucks Department of Psychology and Sport Studies, University of Münster, Germany


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Abstract:  Even though a main goal of science is to reduce the uncertainty in scientific results by applying ever-improving research methods, epistemic uncertainty is an integral part of science. As such, while uncertainty might be communicated in news articles about climate science, climate skeptics have also exploited this uncertainty to cast doubt on science itself. We performed two studies to assess whether scientific uncertainty affects laypeople’s assessments of issue uncertainty, the credibility of the information, their trust in scientists and climate science, and impacts their decision-making. In addition, we addressed how these effects are influenced by further information on relevant scientific processes, because knowing that uncertainty goes along with scientific research could ease laypeople’s interpretations of uncertainty around evidence and may even protect against negative impacts of such uncertainty on trust. Unexpectedly, in study 1, after participants read both a text about research methods and a news article that included scientific uncertainty, they had lower trust in the scientists’ assertions than when they read the uncertain news article alone (but this did not impact trust in climate science or decision-making). In study 2, we tested whether these results occurred due to participants overestimating the scientific uncertainty at hand. Hence, we varied the framing of uncertainty in the text on scientific processes. We found that exaggerating the scientific uncertainty produced by scientific processes (vs. framing the uncertainty as something to be expected) did not negatively affect participants’ trust ratings. However, the degree to which participants preferred effortful reasoning on problems (intellective epistemic style) correlated with ratings of trust in scientists and climate science and with their decision-making. In sum, there was only little evidence that the introduction of uncertainty in news articles would affect participants’ ratings of trust and their decision-making, but their preferred style of reasoning did.

Keywords:  fake news; procedural knowledge; readership; science communication; scientific literacy; scientific uncertainty; trust

Published:   25 June 2020


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DOI: https://doi.org/10.17645/mac.v8i2.2824


© Friederike Hendriks, Regina Jucks. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0), which permits any use, distribution, and reproduction of the work without further permission provided the original author(s) and source are credited.