Effects of communicating uncertainty descriptions in hazard identification, risk characterization, and risk protection
Uncertainty is a crucial issue for any risk assessment. Consequently, it also poses crucial challenges for risk communications. Many guidebooks advise reporting uncertainties in risk assessments, expecting that the audience will appreciate this disclosure. However, the empirical evidence about the effects of uncertainty reporting is sparse and inconclusive. Therefore, based on examples of potential health risks of electromagnetic fields (EMF), three experiments were conducted analysing the effects of communicating uncertainties separately for hazard identification, risk characterisation and risk protection. The setups aimed to explore how reporting and how explaining of uncertainty affects dependent variables such as risk perception, perceived competence of the risk assessors, and trust in risk management. Each of the three experiments used a 2x2 design with a first factor presenting uncertainty descriptions (as used in public controversies on EMF related health effects) or describing a certainty conditions; and a second factor explaining the causes of uncertainties (by pointing at knowledge gaps) or not explaining them. The study results indicate that qualitative uncertainty descriptions regarding hazard identification reduce the confidence in the professional competencies of the assessors. In contrast, a quantitative uncertainty description in risk characterisation regarding the magnitude of the risk does not affect any of the dependent variables. Concerning risk protection, trust in exposure limit values is not affected by qualitative uncertainty information. However, the qualitative description of uncertainty regarding the adequacy of protection amplifies fears. Furthermore, explaining this uncertainty results in lower text understandability.
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