Values and uncertainties in the predictions of global climate models

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Winsberg, Eric

Over the last several years, there has been an explosion of interest and attention devoted to the problem of Uncertainty Quantification (UQ) in climate science—that is, to giving quantitative estimates of the degree of uncertainty associated with the predictions of global and regional climate models. The technical challenges associated with this project are formidable, and so the statistical community has understandably devoted itself primarily to overcoming them. But even as these technical challenges are being met, a number of persistent conceptual difficulties remain. So why is UQ so important in climate science? UQ, I would like to argue, is first and foremost a tool for communicating knowledge from experts to policy makers in a way that is meant to be free from the influence of social and ethical values. But the standard ways of using probabilities to separate ethical and social values from scientific practice cannot be applied in a great deal of climate modeling, because the roles of values in creating the models cannot be discerned after the fact—the models are too complex and the result of too much distributed epistemic labor. I argue, therefore, that typical approaches for handling ethical/social values in science do not work well here.


Winsberg, E. 2012. Values and uncertainties in the predictions of global climate models. Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 22:111–137.