Deliberative Disjunction: Expert and Public Understanding of Outcome Uncertainty

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Many environmental and risk management decisions are made jointly by technical experts and members of the public. Frequently, their task is to select from among management alternatives whose outcomes are subject to varying degrees of uncertainty. Although it is recognized that how this uncertainty is interpreted can significantly affect decision-making processes and choices, little research has examined similarities and differences between expert and public understandings of uncertainty. We present results from a web-based survey that directly compares expert and lay interpretations and understandings of different expressions of uncertainty in the context of evaluating the consequences of proposed environmental management actions. Participants responded to two hypothetical but realistic scenarios involving trade-offs between environmental and other objectives and were asked a series of questions about their comprehension of the uncertainty information, their preferred choice among the alternatives, and the associated difficulty and amount of effort. Results demonstrate that experts and laypersons tend to use presentations of numerical ranges and evaluative labels differently; interestingly, the observed differences between the two groups were not explained by differences in numeracy or concerns for the predicted environmental losses. These findings question many of the usual presumptions about how uncertainty should be presented as part of deliberative risk- and environmental-management processes.

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