Towards Best Practice Framing of Uncertainty in Scientific Publications: A Review of Water Resources Research Abstracts

Water Resources Research 53 (8) (2017)
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Uncertainty is recognized as a key issue in water resources research, amongst other sciences. Discussions of uncertainty typically focus on tools and techniques applied within an analysis, e.g. uncertainty quantification and model validation. But uncertainty is also addressed outside the analysis, in writing scientific publications. The language that authors use conveys their perspective of the role of uncertainty when interpreting a claim —what we call here “framing” the uncertainty. This article promotes awareness of uncertainty framing in four ways. 1) It proposes a typology of eighteen uncertainty frames, addressing five questions about uncertainty. 2) It describes the context in which uncertainty framing occurs. This is an interdisciplinary topic, involving philosophy of science, science studies, linguistics, rhetoric, and argumentation. 3) We analyze the use of uncertainty frames in a sample of 177 abstracts from the Water Resources Research journal in 2015. This helped develop and tentatively verify the typology, and provides a snapshot of current practice. 4) Provocative recommendations promote adjustments for a more influential, dynamic science. Current practice in uncertainty framing might be described as carefully-considered incremental science. In addition to uncertainty quantification and degree of belief (present in ~5% of abstracts), uncertainty is addressed by a combination of limiting scope, deferring to further work (~25%) and indicating evidence is sufficient (~40%) – or uncertainty is completely ignored (~8%). There is a need for public debate within our discipline to decide in what context different uncertainty frames are appropriate. Uncertainty framing cannot remain a hidden practice evaluated only by lone reviewers.

Author Profiles

Casey Helgeson
Pennsylvania State University


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