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The interpretation of IPCC probabilistic statements around the world


  • David V. Budescu

    (Fordham University, 441 East Fordham Road, Bronx New York 10458, USA)

  • Han-Hui Por

    (Fordham University, 441 East Fordham Road, Bronx New York 10458, USA)

  • Stephen B. Broomell

    (Carnegie Mellon University, 5000 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, 15213, USA)

  • Michael Smithson

    (Research School of Psychology, Bldg 39, The Australian National University)


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) uses verbal descriptions of uncertainty (for example, Unlikely) to convey imprecision in its forecasts and conclusions. Previous studies showed that the American public misinterprets these probabilistic statements. We report results from a multi-national study involving 25 samples in 24 countries and 17 languages. As predicted, laypeople interpret IPCC statements as conveying probabilities closer to 50% than intended by the IPCC authors. We show that an alternative presentation format supplementing the verbal terms with numerical ranges increases the correspondence between the public’s interpretations and the IPCC guidelines, and the terms are better differentiated. These qualitative patterns are remarkably stable across all samples and languages. In fact, interpretations of the terms in various languages are more similar under the new presentation format. These results suggest changing the way the IPCC communicates uncertainty.

Suggested Citation

  • David V. Budescu & Han-Hui Por & Stephen B. Broomell & Michael Smithson, 2014. "The interpretation of IPCC probabilistic statements around the world," Nature Climate Change, Nature, vol. 4(6), pages 508-512, June.
  • Handle: RePEc:nat:natcli:v:4:y:2014:i:6:d:10.1038_nclimate2194
    DOI: 10.1038/nclimate2194

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