Although the terms are used in various ways among the general public, many specialists in decision theory, statistics and other quantitative fields have defined uncertainty, risk, and their measurement as:
- Uncertainty: The lack of certainty. A state of having limited knowledge where it is impossible to exactly describe the existing state, a future outcome, or more than one possible outcome.
- Measurement of Uncertainty: A set of possible states or outcomes where probabilities are assigned to each possible state or outcome – this also includes the application of a probability density function to continuous variables.
- Risk: A state of uncertainty where some possible outcomes have an undesired effect or significant loss.
- Measurement of Risk: A set of measured uncertainties where some possible outcomes are losses, and the magnitudes of those losses – this also includes loss functions over continuous variables.
There are other taxonomies of uncertainties and decisions that include a broader sense of uncertainty and how it should be approached from an ethics perspective:
For example, if it is unknown whether or not it will rain tomorrow, then there is a state of uncertainty. If probabilities are applied to the possible outcomes using weather forecasts or even just a calibrated probability assessment, the uncertainty has been quantified. Suppose it is quantified as a 90% chance of sunshine. If there is a major, costly, outdoor event planned for tomorrow then there is a risk since there is a 10% chance of rain, and rain would be undesirable. Furthermore, if this is a business event and $100,000 would be lost if it rains, then the risk has been quantified(a 10% chance of losing $100,000). These situations can be made even more realistic by quantifying light rain vs. heavy rain, the cost of delays vs. outright cancellation, etc.
Some may represent the risk in this example as the "expected opportunity loss" (EOL) or the chance of the loss multiplied by the amount of the loss (10% × $100,000 = $10,000). That is useful if the organizer of the event is "risk neutral", which most people are not. Most would be willing to pay a premium to avoid the loss. An insurance company, for example, would compute an EOL as a minimum for any insurance coverage, then add onto that other operating costs and profit. Since many people are willing to buy insurance for many reasons, then clearly the EOL alone is not the perceived value of avoiding the risk.
Quantitative uses of the terms uncertainty and risk are fairly consistent from fields such as probability theory, actuarial science, and information theory. Some also create new terms without substantially changing the definitions of uncertainty or risk. For example, surprisal is a variation on uncertainty sometimes used in information theory. But outside of the more mathematical uses of the term, usage may vary widely. In cognitive psychology, uncertainty can be real, or just a matter of perception, such as expectations, threats, etc.
Vagueness or ambiguity are sometimes described as "second order uncertainty", where there is uncertainty even about the definitions of uncertain states or outcomes. The difference here is that this uncertainty is about the human definitions and concepts, not an objective fact of nature. It has been argued that ambiguity, however, is always avoidable while uncertainty (of the "first order" kind) is not necessarily avoidable.
Uncertainty may be purely a consequence of a lack of knowledge of obtainable facts. That is, there may be uncertainty about whether a new rocket design will work, but this uncertainty can be removed with further analysis and experimentation. At the subatomic level, however, uncertainty may be a fundamental and unavoidable property of the universe. In quantum mechanics, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle puts limits on how much an observer can ever know about the position and velocity of a particle. This may not just be ignorance of potentially obtainable facts but that there is no fact to be found. There is some controversy in physics as to whether such uncertainty is an irreducible property of nature or if there are "hidden variables" that would describe the state of a particle even more exactly than Heisenberg's uncertainty principle allows.