What is uncertainty?

I used to be uncertain - now I'm not so sure. In ordinary use the word 'uncertainty' does not inspire confidence. However, when used in a technical sense as in 'measurement uncertainty' or 'uncertainty of a test result' it carries a specific meaning. It is a parameter, associated with the result of a measurement (eg a calibration or test) that defines the range of the values that could reasonably be attributed to the measured quantity. When uncertainty is evaluated and reported in a specified way it indicates the level of confidence that the value actually lies within the range defined by the uncertainty interval.

How does it arise?

Any measurement is subject to imperfections; some of these are due to random effects, such as short-term fluctuations in temperature, humidity and air-pressure or variability in the performance of the measurer. Repeated measurements will show variation because of these random effects. Other imperfections are due to the practical limits to which correction can be made for systematic effects, such as offset of a measuring instrument, drift in its characteristics between calibrations, personal bias in reading an analogue scale or the uncertainty of the value of a reference standard.

Why is it important?

The uncertainty is a quantitative indication of the quality of the result. It gives an answer to the question, how well does the result represent the value of the quantity being measured? It allows users of the result to assess its reliability, for example for the purposes of companion of results from different sources or with reference values. Confidence in the comparability of results can help to reduce barriers to trade.

Often, a result is compared with a limiting value defined in a specification or regulation. In this case, knowledge of the uncertainty shows whether the result is well within the the acceptable limits or only just makes it. Occasionally a result is so close to the limit that the risk associated with the possibility that the property that was measured may not fall within the limit, once the uncertainty has been allowed for, must be considered.

Suppose that a customer has the same test done in more than one laboratory, perhaps on the same sample, more likely on what they may regard as an identical sample of the same product. Would we expect the laboratories to get identical results? Only within limits, we may answer, but when the results are close to the specification limit it may be that one laboratory indicates failure whereas another indicates a pass. From time to time accreditation bodies have to investigate complaints concerning such differences. This can involve much time and effort for all parties, which in many cases could have been avoided if the uncertainty of the result had been known by the customer.

What is done about it?

The standard general requirements for the competence of testing and calibration laboratories specifies requirements for reporting and evaluating uncertainty of measurement. The problems presented by these requirements vary in nature and severity depending on the technical field and whether the measurement is a calibration or test.

Calibration is characterized by the facts that:

repeated measurements can be made

uncertainty of reference instruments is provided at each stage down the calibration chain, starting with the national standard and

customers are aware of the need for a statement of uncertainty in order to ensure that the instrument meets their requirements.

Consequently, calibration laboratories are used to evaluating and reporting uncertainty. In accredited laboratories the uncertainty evaluation is subject to assessment by the accreditation body and is quoted on calibration certificates issued by the laboratory.

The situation in testing is not as well-developed and particular difficulties are encountered. For example, in destructive tests the opportunity to repeat the test is limited to another sample, often at significant extra cost and with the additional uncertainty due to sample variation. Even when repeat tests are technically feasible such an approach may be uneconomic. In some cases a test may not be defined well enough by the standard, leading to potentially inconsistent application and thus another source of uncertainty. In many tests there will be uncertainty components that need to be evaluated on the basis of previous data and experience, in addition to those evaluated from calibration certificates and manufacturers, specifications.