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The effects of communicating uncertainty around statistics, on public trust

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Uncertainty around statistics is inevitable. However, communicators of uncertain statistics, particularly in high-stakes and potentially political circumstances, may be concerned that presenting uncertainties could undermine the perceived trustworthiness of the information or its source. In a large survey experiment (Study 1; N = 10 519), we report that communicating uncertainty around present COVID-19 statistics in the form of a numeric range (versus no uncertainty) may lead to slightly lower perceived trustworthiness of the number presented but has no impact on perceived trustworthiness of the source of the information. We also show that this minimal impact of numeric uncertainty on trustworthiness is also present when communicating future, projected COVID-19 statistics (Study 2; N = 2,309). Conversely, we find statements about the mere existence of uncertainty, without quantification, can reduce both perceived trustworthiness of the numbers and of their source. Our findings add to others suggesting that communicators can be transparent about statistical uncertainty without undermining their credibility as a source but should endeavour to provide a quantification, such as a numeric range, where possible.


Peer reviewed: True

Publication status: Published

Funder: David & Claudia Harding Foundation

Funder: Nuffield Foundation; doi:


trust, trustworthiness, COVID-19, uncertainty, communication

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Royal Society Open Science

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The Royal Society