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BMC Med Inform Decis Mak. 2013;13 Suppl 3:S4. doi: 10.1186/1472-6947-13-S3-S4. Epub 2013 Dec 6.

Against conventional wisdom: when the public, the media, and medical practice collide.



In 2009, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force released new mammography screening guidelines that sparked a torrent of criticism. The subsequent conflict was significant and pitted the Task Force against other health organizations, advocacy groups, the media, and the public at large. We argue that this controversy was driven by the systematic removal of uncertainty from science communication. To increase comprehension and adherence, health information communicators remove caveats, limitations, and hedging so science appears simple and more certain. This streamlining process is, in many instances, initiated by researchers as they engage in dissemination of their findings, and it is facilitated by public relations professionals, journalists, public health practitioners, and others whose tasks involve using the results from research for specific purposes.


Uncertainty is removed from public communication because many communicators believe that it is difficult for people to process and/or that it is something the audience wants to avoid. Uncertainty management theory posits that people can find meaning and value in uncertainty. We define key terms relevant to uncertainty management, describe research on the processing of uncertainty, identify directions for future research, and offer recommendations for scientists, practitioners, and media professionals confronted with uncertain findings.


Science is routinely simplified as it is prepared for public consumption. In line with the model of information overload, this practice may increase short-term adherence to recommendations at the expense of long-term message consistency and trust in science.

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