A vocabulary for describing uncertainty
"I wish I had a ..."

Science education content avoids uncertainty. I'm interested in content which deals extensively and explicitly with uncertain scientific knowledge. Graduate to primary school. How to do that, is an open question.

Dealing with uncertainty adds complexity and confusion. So why do it?

(1) Thorough descriptions: We often know the important questions, before we know their answers. The questions which characterize some system type, even when, for some specific system, the current answer is "we're not sure yet". I speculate that introductory content which systematically includes the important questions, might have nice properties.

(2) Insight: New research results might often permit creating content with deeper insight, and thus more-transferable understanding. But this requires dealing with the uncertainty and disagreement of the research cutting edge.

Here's a example with both. When describing any fluid flow, a most basic question, is whether the flow is laminar and/or turbulent. So, what about human blood? It's generally laminar, but as of 2010, there's disagreement among research groups about whether it's ever turbulent ("clearly yes", "clearly no", and "open question"). If we are to neither avoid the topic, nor mislead (as with "laminar", or "generally laminar"), one possible description is "laminar (always or almost)". The "(always or almost)" modifier captures the uncertainty here.

I speculate it might be useful to build a principled toolkit of such vocabulary.

A broader example of need is describing the impact of horizontal and virus-mediated gene transfer.

Traditional content does sometimes describe uncertain knowledge, when it's exceptionally important (eg, 'mitochondria are endosymbionts', some years ago). But being rare, they are ad hoc. And often excessively hesitant. And presented without propagating their implications (eg, endosymbiosis as a pervasive aspect of life). So is it possible to do better?

I've seen several concentrations of related work on communicating uncertainty:

  • Climate-change outreach. (most fruitful)
  • Student 'scientific argumentation' and collaborative inquiry.
  • Anthropology and epistemology of science.

A side benefit of getting this right, is making descriptive content a much better model of science process.

Help wanted

I'd like to effectively communicate uncertainty to K-graduate. How to do this, appears an open question. So I would love pointers to literature, their aggregation as web sites or survey articles, any guideline synthesis, and any experience reports.

But, caution: all this is speculative. It's not clear it's at all fruitful. Get tenure first.

Related work

Here's the result of a very brief and superficial search.

Climate-change outreach

Climatic Change (2011-10) special issue on uncertainty guidance for the IPCC. $ official.  Curry.

"Guidance Note for Lead Authors of the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report on Consistent Treatment of Uncertainties". 2010-07.  [PDF]

John Bates. "Uncertainty Challenges for Scientists and Policymakers". 2012. slides 24-28 [PDF]

Student 'scientific argumentation'

A learning progression for scientific argumentation: Understanding student work and designing supportive instructional contexts. 2010. $DOI.  [PDF].

Amy Pallant and Hee-Sun Lee. "Characterizing uncertainty associated with middle school students’ scientific arguments". 2011. [PDF]

Related topics

Visualization with uncertainty using multiples.
What did the globe look like at 250 Ma? There's scientific uncertainty. And 249.9, 250.0, and 250.01 all looked different. What did you look like, ages 1 to now, inclusive? Multiple small images, and flickering alternatives, might help make illustrations less misleading.
Range-based estimation discussion as scientific argumentation.
Each little step of incrementally narrowing bounds is a claim-evidence-dissent, and -evaluation, argument. With nice correctness constraints.


Flesh out climate change and argumentation literature. Seek existing survey pages. Does the PER wiki have one? Should it? Any other likely communities?

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