The Ethics of Communicating Scientific Uncertainty

Date01 February 2015
2-2015 NEWS & ANALYSIS 45 ELR 10105
The Ethics of Communicating
Scientif‌ic Uncertainty
Scientic uncertainty is inevitable in many public pol-
icy debates, especially in the environmental and public
health arena. Scientists, lawyers, and media profes-
sionals develop and communicate the data, informa-
tion, and analysis that inform public decisionmaking.
But each of these professions regards and communi-
cates scientic uncertainty dierently, in part due to
varying professional norms and ethical standards. On
September 12, 2014, the Environmental Law Institute
hosted a webinar to examine how the elds of science,
law, and journalism each address scientic uncer-
tainty, and how core professional norms shape the way
they communicate it. Below, we present a transcript of
the event, which has been edited for style, clarity, and
space considerations.
Jay Austin (moderator) is a Senior Attorney at ELI.
George Gray is Professor at George Washington Univer-
sity’s Department of Environmental and Occupational
Health and Director of the Center for Risk Science and
Public Health.
Jim Hilbert is Professor at William Mitchell College of
Law in St. Paul, MN, and Co-Director of the Expert Wit-
ness Training Academy.
David Poulson is Senior A ssociate Director of the
Knig ht Center for E nvironmenta l Journalism at Michi-
gan St ate Universit y.
Jay Austin: I’d like to welcome everyone to this ELI dia-
logue on the ethics of communicating scientic uncer-
tainty. My name is Jay Austin. I’m a senior attorney at ELI,
and I’ll be moderating today. is dialogue is a companion
to a workshop1 that ELI hosted in Washington, D.C., in
September 2014. Both events were organized with support
from the National Science Foundation’s Paleoclimate Pro-
gram.2 e listening audience today is drawn both from
participants in the workshop and from ELI’s broader net-
work of law and policy mavens.
1. Visit Environmental Law Institute, Ethics of Communicating Scientic
2. For more information, visit the National Science Foundation’s website at
e goal of the two events is to bring together three
disparate groups—scientists, lawyers, and journalists—to
discuss the topic of uncertainty and, more specically, to
compare notes on how each of these professions communi-
cates about scientic uncertainty within their professions,
between the various professions, and to a larger audience
including the general public.
We’re hoping to ta lk about the norms and standards
that guide each of these groups and to tr y to reach a bet-
ter or common understanding of how they approach com-
plex scientic topics. at includes big topics like climate
change with all the attendant uncerta inty, but also reaches
into essentially every area of environmental and public
health policy where decisions are being made based on
uncertain or incomplete information.
at’s a general summary of our scope, and I think our
speakers will help rene it. We’ve got an extremely dist in-
guished panel of experts and teachers to get us started. In
the order you’ll be hearing from them, we have George
Gray, a professor at George Washington University’s
Department of Environmental and Occupational Health
and also director of the Center for Risk Science and Public
Health. Jim Hilbert is a professor at the William Mitchell
College of Law in St. Paul, Minnesota, and co-director of
the Expert Witness Training Academy there. And David
Poulson is senior associate director of the Knight Center for
Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University.
I’ve asked each of these folks to talk from the perspective
of a longtime practitioner of their respective professions
and to introduce the rest of us to what it means to think
about uncertainty the way that a scientist or lawyer or jour-
nalist does. After they’ve nished their presentations, there
should be some time left for questions.
George Gray: I’m going to talk about how users of science
think about uncertainty. When I say “users,” I’m focusing
on the risk assessment process, which is where individual
acts of science done in a laboratory or out in the eld or
making measurements are brought together to help inform
decisions that we’re going to make as a society. e norm
is full disclosure, and I’ll show you some examples of that
as we go along.
I want to start with a reminder that uncertainty is every-
where. Sometimes, it’s not acknowledged, but it’s revealed.
For example, what if you had a concern about cel l phones
and brain cancer? You could look at the U.S. Food and
Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) fact sheet, where the agency
Copyright © 2015 Environmental Law Institute®, Washington, DC. Reprinted with permission from ELR®,, 1-800-433-5120.

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