Uncertainty about facts can be communicated without compromising public confidence in the news: study

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Heading numbers — for example, for Covid-19 infections — contain significant levels of uncertainty: assumptions, limitations, extrapolations, and so on.

Experts and journalists have long suggested that identifying the “noise” inherent in data confuses the audience and undermines confidence, researchers at Cambridge University say, despite the fact that this has been little studied.

Now, a new study has shown that uncertainty around key facts and figures can be conveyed in a way that supports public trust information and its source, even on controversial issues such as immigration and climate change.

Researchers say they hope that work funded by the Nuffield Foundation will encourage scientists and the media to boldly report statistical uncertainty.

“Estimated numbers with serious uncertainties are reported as absolute data,” said Dr. Ann Marte van der Bles, who led the new study at the Winton Cambridge Risk and Evidence Center.

“This can affect the public’s attitude towards risk and human experience, and it can also cause negative sentiment if people ultimately feel cheated,” she said.

Soander Sander van der Linden, director of the Cambridge Laboratory for Social Decision Making, said: “Improving the accuracy of reporting numbers by indicating its uncertainty gives the public better information. In an era of fake news that can help build trust. "

A team of psychologists and mathematicians intends to find out if they can bring people much closer to the statistical “truth” in an online news report without violating perceived authenticity.

They conducted five experiments involving a total of 5,780 participants, including a unique field experiment organized by BBC News on the Internet that displayed uncertainty around the headline in different ways.

Researchers got better results when the number was marked as an estimate and was accompanied by a numerical range from which it was obtained, for example: “… the unemployment rate rose to about 3.9% (from 3.7% to 4.1%) . %). "

In this format, the feeling and understanding that the data contain uncertainty, but practically do not negatively affect the level of trust in the data themselves, those who provided them (for example, government employees) or those who communicate them (for example, journalists) has noticeably increased. .

“We hope that these results will help convince all the disseminators of facts and science that they can be more open and transparent in relation to human knowledge,” said co-author Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, chairman of the Winton Center at the University of Cambridge.

Catherine Dennison, head of the Nuffield Foundation social security program, said: “We strive to build confidence in evidence at a time when it is often called into question. This study provides useful recommendations for ensuring reliable transmission of informative statistics to the public. ”

Results published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,

Previous views on contested topics in news reports, such as migration, were included in the analysis. Although the relevance to the problem mattered to how the facts were considered when transparency was added regarding the uncertainty of the data, this did not significantly reduce the credibility of the figures or the source.

The team worked with the BBC to conduct a field experiment in October 2019 when UK labor market data was published.

In the BBC's online history, numbers were presented as usual, as “control,” or with some uncertainty — a verbal warning or a numerical range — and a link to a brief survey. Conclusions from thisreal world“The experiment corresponded to the experiments of other“ laboratory conditions. ”

“We recommend that journalists and data-makers give people a fuller picture,” said co-author Dr. Alexandra Freeman, executive director of Winton Center.

“If the number is an estimate, let them know how accurate this estimate is by enclosing the minimum and maximum in brackets.”

Sander van der Linden added: “Ultimately, we would like to see the development of psychological comfort around the fact that knowledge and data always contain uncertainty.”

“Disinformation often seems final, and fake news plays a certain amount of confidence,” he said.

“One way to help people navigate today's post-truth news environment is to be honest about what we don’t know, such as the exact number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK. Our work assumes that people can handle the truth. ”

How to decrypt news to find facts

Additional Information:
Anne Marthe van der Bles el al., “The Impact of the Transmission of Uncertainty on Public Confidence in Facts and Figures” PNAS (2020). www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1913678117

Uncertainty about facts can be communicated without compromising public confidence in the news: study (2020, March 23)
restored March 23, 2020
from https://phys.org/news/2020-03-unterminty-facts-news.html

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