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Earlier this month, program staff from SSRC’s Scholarly Borderlands initiative attended the Annual Meeting of the American Meteorological Society in Phoenix, where they hosted a series of panels entitled “The Other Uncertainty: Social, Political, and Cultural Forms of Uncertainty in Weather Contexts.” These multidisciplinary panels aimed to bring deeper understanding of the complex social aspects of uncertainty into conversation with a field that is primarily focused on eliminating uncertainty from probabilistic forecasting models. Invited speakers from across the social sciences spoke to the myriad sources of individual, social, and cultural ambiguity that emerge, interact, operate, and propagate throughout the life cycle of hazardous weather events which are far less understood.
Over the course of the presentations, several themes emerged. The first concerned how individuals and groups interpret and process uncertainty and risk after it is communicated. Susan Joslyn (University of Washington) explained that this requires an understanding of the different mental models and schemata that people have to process information, and therefore an understanding of the educational, cultural, and social diversity of what are in fact many “publics”. To understand how this information is then processed and shared, Melissa Bica (University of Colorado, Boulder) discussed the uses of qualitative methods to analyze social media engagement with images that depict probabilities and uncertainty over the course of extreme weather events. Panelists also stressed that uncertainty is not merely a condition or context- it can be conceptualized as a produced commodity or a political tool, especially concerning marginalized groups. Amber Wutich (Arizona State University), emphasized the importance of examining uncertainty both up and down the power continuum, as it plays a drastically different role in each context. Likewise, who decides what an “acceptable” level of uncertainty is and where that threshold lies for various populations is an incredibly political situation. Robert Soden, (University of Colorado- Boulder), drew on his experience working on federal flood insurance maps to depict just how political the process of determining risk can be, as government agencies and property owners attempt to resist and influence where supposedly objective lines of flood risk and probability are drawn.
When examining the uncertainty that arises from extreme weather events, social science methods and perspectives can help give a more nuanced view of how people process risk and make decisions in uncertain contexts. Jenniffer Santos-Hernández (University of Puerto Rico- Rio Piedras), observed that while much effort goes into giving people in uncertain situations the illusion of control, this should not be the goal of weather scholars or practitioners. A more productive engagement with uncertainty acknowledges that is not a thing that can in fact be eradicated – while forecasters strive to provide the most accurate information in a clear way, the goal is for people to make informed decisions based on a better understanding of their own circumstantial level of risk. Rather than prescribing what the “right” decision is for an individual, family, or group in an extreme weather situation, social science research designed with inclusion in mind from the start (Tamara Marcus, University of New Hampshire) offer a means to understand decision-making and behavioral processes to empower people in times of uncertainty.