Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences
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Don't know, can't know: embracing deeper uncertainties when analysing risks

David J. Spiegelhalter

David J. Spiegelhalter

Statistical Laboratory, Centre for Mathematical Sciences, Wilberforce Road, Cambridge CB3 0WB, UK

[email protected]

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and
Hauke Riesch

Hauke Riesch

Centre for Environmental Policy, Imperial College London, London SW7 2AZ, UK

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Published:https://doi.org/10.1098/rsta.2011.0163

    Numerous types of uncertainty arise when using formal models in the analysis of risks. Uncertainty is best seen as a relation, allowing a clear separation of the object, source and ‘owner’ of the uncertainty, and we argue that all expressions of uncertainty are constructed from judgements based on possibly inadequate assumptions, and are therefore contingent. We consider a five-level structure for assessing and communicating uncertainties, distinguishing three within-model levels—event, parameter and model uncertainty—and two extra-model levels concerning acknowledged and unknown inadequacies in the modelling process, including possible disagreements about the framing of the problem. We consider the forms of expression of uncertainty within the five levels, providing numerous examples of the way in which inadequacies in understanding are handled, and examining criticisms of the attempts taken by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to separate the likelihood of events from the confidence in the science. Expressing our confidence in the adequacy of the modelling process requires an assessment of the quality of the underlying evidence, and we draw on a scale that is widely used within evidence-based medicine. We conclude that the contingent nature of risk-modelling needs to be explicitly acknowledged in advice given to policy-makers, and that unconditional expressions of uncertainty remain an aspiration.

    Footnotes

    One contribution of 15 to a Discussion Meeting Issue ‘Handling uncertainty in science’.

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