Wednesday, August 31, 2011

What is the difference between uncertainty and ambiguity?

I am often asked this question, so in the interests clarity about ambiguity and uncertainty...

Something is ambiguous if it can be interpreted or seen in more than one way. So for example a sentence in a job reference "you will be very fortunate to get this person to work for you" has a couple of different interpretations. Either the subject of this reference is very good or very lazy.

Uncertainty on the other hand is any situation in which an individual has or finds doubt. So a situation could be uncertain but not ambiguous. People can have doubt about the most certain of situations and no doubt about an ambiguous situation. Uncertainty is then also a perception and an individual experience.



Anonymous said...

Actually I would define things differently and would put ambiguity as a sub-category of uncertainty. In particular,I would say that uncertainty encompasses all those cases in which one cannot perfectly describe the current or future state of the world with certainty. Then I would say that uncertainty can be divided in two broad categories, one in which one has exact, objective probabilities which I would define as risk, and one which does not have such probabilities which I would define as ambiguity.

Anonymous said...

Hi thank you for posting on this. It's certainly something that has been on my mind for awhile, particularly with regards to students in a classroom setting. Consider the situation where students have been attending biology lessons for a couple of semesters and a student poses a question to another. This other student (student B) is unable to answer because he is unsure of a direct answer. Student B knows the required concept but there could be a few ways to approach the question given that one concept. Is this a case of uncertainty (where the student has gaps in understanding and needs to revise more thoroughly) or is this a case of ambiguity, since you can approach the question a couple of ways?