Risk Analysis

Effects of Acknowledging Uncertainty about Earthquake Risk Estimates on San Francisco Bay Area Residents’ Beliefs, Attitudes, and Intentions

Journal Article

Abstract

We test here the risk communication proposition that explicit expert acknowledgment of uncertainty in risk estimates can enhance trust and other reactions. We manipulated such a scientific uncertainty message, accompanied by probabilities (20%, 70%, implicit [“will occur”] 100%) and time periods (10 or 30 years) in major (≥magnitude 8) earthquake risk estimates to test potential effects on residents potentially affected by seismic activity on the San Andreas fault in the San Francisco Bay Area (n = 750). The uncertainty acknowledgment increased belief that these specific experts were more honest and open, and led to statistically (but not substantively) significant increases in trust in seismic experts generally only for the 20% probability (vs. certainty) and shorter versus longer time period. The acknowledgment did not change judged risk, preparedness intentions, or mitigation policy support. Probability effects independent of the explicit admission of expert uncertainty were also insignificant except for judged risk, which rose or fell slightly depending upon the measure of judged risk used. Overall, both qualitative expressions of uncertainty and quantitative probabilities had limited effects on public reaction. These results imply that both theoretical arguments for positive effects, and practitioners’ potential concerns for negative effects, of uncertainty expression may have been overblown. There may be good reasons to still acknowledge experts’ uncertainties, but those merit separate justification and their own empirical tests.

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