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Stochastics and Statistics Seminar Series

Communicating uncertainty about facts, numbers and science

October 29, 2019 @ 11:00 am - 12:00 pm

David Spiegelhalter (University of Cambridge)


The claim of a ‘post-truth’ society, in which emotional responses trump balanced consideration of evidence, presents a strong challenge to those who value quantitative and scientific evidence: how can we communicate risks and unavoidable scientific uncertainty in a transparent and trustworthy way?

Communication of quantifiable risks has been well-studied, leading to recommendations for using an expected frequency format. But deeper uncertainty about facts, numbers, or scientific hypotheses needs to be communicated without losing trust and credibility. This is an empirically researchable issue, and I shall describe some current randomised experiments concerning the impact on audiences of alternative verbal, numerical and graphical means of communicating uncertainty.

Available evidence may often not permit a quantitative assessment of uncertainty, and I will also examine scales being used to summarise degrees of ‘confidence’ in conclusions, in terms of the quality of the research underlying the whole assessment.

About the speaker: Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter is Chair of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication in the University of Cambridge, which aims to improve the way that statistical evidence is used by health professionals, patients, lawyers and judges, media and policy-makers. He advises organisations and government agencies on risk communication and is a regular media commentator on statistical issues, with a particular focus on communicating uncertainty. His background is in medical statistics, and he has over 200 refereed publications and is co-author of 6 textbooks, as well as The Norm Chronicles (with Michael Blastland), and Sex by Numbers. He works extensively with the media, and presented the BBC4 documentaries “Tails you Win: the Science of Chance”, the award-winning “Climate Change by Numbers”, and in 2011 came 7 th in an episode of BBC1’s Winter Wipeout. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 2005, and knighted in 2014 for services to medical statistics. He was President of the Royal Statistical Society for 2017-2018. His bestselling book, The Art of Statistics, was published in March 2019. He is @d_spiegel on Twitter, and his homepage is http://www.statslab.cam.ac.uk/~david/.

MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
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Cambridge, MA 02139-4307