scientific uncertainty

For scientists, uncertainty is not something to be worried about or avoided. It’s something to be quantified, understood and explained. It’s even part of the process that drives science forward.

How to Use this Video

This video explores what scientists mean when they talk about uncertainty, and how that’s different from the way this uncertainty is often perceived by the public. We start with 2014’s record heat wave, and end up with a discussion about how scientists quantify uncertainty and the value of expertise.

Find the video below, as well as some of the important Science Senses it features relating to sample size effects, understanding accuracy and precision, and understanding the value of scientific expertise and consensus.

Have thoughts about the video? What resources or activities have you used to teach this topic in your class? We’d love to know – share your voice by sending us a message below 🙂


Science Senses Featured in this Video

Data sense

Understanding sample size effects

Quantifying variability and uncertainty

Repeating measurements

Understanding accuracy and precision

Thinking probabilistically

Knowledge sense

Drawing conclusions from data

Communicating science

Employing reasonable skepticism

Making progress in science

Understanding the value of scientific expertise and consensus

Video Pairings

Activities & Lesson Plans

Good headline / bad headline – there is an opportunity here to discuss how scientific findings are translated (and mistranslated) in the popular press. Choose a recent science news item and have students find articles that report on that finding. Have them compare those articles with the original peer-reviewed presentation of those data. Which news articles most accurately represent the scientific finding? Which are misleading? Why?

Skepticism discussion – Dr. Block says that “a good scientist is a good skeptic for their own data set.” What does that mean? Does this mean we should be skeptical of everything? Why / why not? There is a push for some scientists to stop calling people who don’t think the climate is changing “climate skeptics” and to start calling them “climate deniers.” Why do you think this is?

Statistical analysis – this video is a good time to have students think about quantifying variability and error. Give students a set of data from any field and have them analyze it using basic descriptive statistics. Calculating means, standard deviations, variances, standard errors, and confidence intervals is a great way to have students begin to think about how we can go from a table of numbers to conclusions. You can also have students visualize these statistics.


Hansen et. al. 2012. Perception of climate change. PNAS. E2415-E2423.

Pigliucci, M. Chapter 6: Science and Politics from Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

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