Characterizing uncertainty in expert assessments

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Anthropology | Environmental Studies | Social and Behavioral Sciences | Sociology


Large-scale assessments have become an important vehicle for organizing, interpreting, and presenting scientific information relevant to environmental policy. At the same time, identifying and evaluating scientific uncertainty with respect to the very questions these assessments were designed to address has become more difficult, as ever more complex problems involving greater portions of the Earth system and longer timescales have emerged at the science–policy interface. In this article, we explore expert judgments about uncertainty in two recent cases: the assessment of stratospheric ozone depletion, and the assessment of the response of the West Antarctic ice sheet (WAIS) to global warming. These assessments were fairly adept at characterizing one type of uncertainty in models (parameter uncertainty), but faced much greater difficulty in dealing with structural model uncertainty, sometimes entirely avoiding grappling with it. In the absence of viable models, innovative approaches were developed in the ozone case for consolidating information about highly uncertain future outcomes, whereas little such progress has been made thus far in the case of WAIS. Both cases illustrate the problem of expert disagreement, suggesting that future assessments need to develop improved approaches to representing internal conflicts of judgment, in order to produce a more complete evaluation of uncertainty.


DOI: 10.1002/wcc.135