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Decision uncertainty

Uncertainty, from the point of view of a decision maker, could belong to one of three categories.
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Uncertainty is considered here from the point of view of a decision maker, who must make a decision based on the knowledge s/he has about a situation.

We can consider three general categories of uncertainty:

  • Unpredictability: exists when the decision maker is not able to predict, in space or time, the behaviour of a system (i.e. ontological uncertainty sensu Walker et al. 2003).
  • Incomplete knowledge: exists when the decision maker lacks enough knowledge about the system. This can be due to different factors, such as lack of theoretical understanding, ignorance, lack of information or data, unreliability of data describing the system, etc. (i.e. epistemic uncertainty sensu Walker et al. 2003).
  • Multiple knowledge frames: results from having different, and sometimes conflicting, views about the system (i.e. ambiguity sensu Dewulf et al. 2005)

Decision uncertainty therefore refers to the situation in which there is no unique and complete understanding of the system to be managed. Conventional objectives have been to reduce uncertainty in order to make better and more robust decisions, and this relies to a large extent on improving the quality of information. Conventional uncertainty does not take into account context.

In adaptive management, dealing with uncertainty requires both analytic (objective) criteria (to counter the incomplete nature of problems and lack of knowledge) as well as deliberative ones (to deal with multiple knowledge frames).

The context of a decision – social, cultural, economic, legal, policy – will determine how it is framed. Making the context explicit may be another way of reducing uncertainty, making the whole system more adaptive and less vulnerable to surprises.


Dewulf, A., Craps, M., Bouwen, R., Tailleu, T. and C. Pahl-Wostl. (2005). “Integrated Management of Natural Resources: Dealing with Ambiguous Issues, Multiple Actors and Diverging Frames” Water, Science and Technology, 52 pp 115 – 124

Walker, W.E., Harremos, P., Rotmans, J., van der Sluijs, J.P., van Asselt, M.B.A., Janssen, P. and M.P. Krayer von Krauss (2003). “Defining Unvertainty. A Conceptual Basis for Uncertainty Managment in Model Based Decision Support” Integrated Assesment, 4(1), pp 5 – 17

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