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Scientific Uncertainty

By Kelly O'Donnell

Science Forward

This video explores what scientists mean when they talk about uncertainty and how it differs from the way this uncertainty is perceived by the public. We start with 2014’s record heat and end up with a discussion how scientists quantify uncertainty.

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Version 1.0 - published on 25 Jul 2018 doi:10.25334/Q4M422 - cite this

Licensed under CC Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International according to these terms



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.

Science Senses:

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/consensus

Classroom Ideas:

  • This video pairs nicely with the Climate Change video and the two can be assigned together.
  • 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 this mean? Does this mean we should be skeptical of everything? Why/why not? There is a push from 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 being to think about how we can go from a table of numbers to conclusions. You can also have students visualize these statistics.

Possible Readings:

  • 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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