Confidence from Uncertainty: Interpreting Climate Predictions

The exhibit was run as part of the Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, Royal Society, 5-10 July 2011.

The exhibit was also run as part of the ESRC Festival of Social Science, 4 November 2011 at LSE with an interactive exhibit as well as a public lecture given by Dr David Stainforth.  


Throughout history man has tried to predict the future. Nowadays scientists are looked to as a source of forecasts, and over recent decades computer models have become their greatest tool. But computer models are different from reality, and experiments with computer models are different from experiments on reality.

This exhibit explores how we make and communicate predictions, how and when we can deduce probabilities, and the role of computer models in these processes. We focus particularly on climate change where basic physics is enough to highlight the severity of the problem but forecasting the details is one of today's grand scientific challenges. Progress requires integrating skills and understanding from disciplines as diverse as physics, mathematics, computer science, statistics, chemistry, ecology, economics, philosophy and more.

How does it work?

Mankind's emissions of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, are warming the planet. This in turn will change the local climate we experience all around the globe. In the globalised society we live in we will feel the consequences not only as a result of local changes but also as a result of impacts in distant places.

Thus we can confidently know that climate change poses a significant threat to our society; to the way we live. But what about the details? What does this actually mean for you or me, here? Providing such details is a forecasting problem unlike any other. In most forecasting situations we have a way of testing the reliability of our forecasts; we make a forecast, or a collection of forecasts, and see if they were right. If they weren't we would go away and change our forecasting system. But for climate change there is no way of making such statistical checks. So scientists rely on understanding, some of which is encapsulated in extremely complicated computer models. Working out how we use the output of such models and how we evaluate, communicate and respond to different types of uncertainty is the subject of this exhibit.

An interview with David Stainforth, Royal Society Summer Science 2011
A Chance to Meet Real Live Scientists Dr David Stainforth quoted in an article about the Royal Society Summer Exhibition, Guardian, 6 July 2011
Flyer for Interactive Exhibit and Public Lecture, 4 November 2011

Climate Change: Two Key Questions
Sources of Knowledge
Flavours of Uncertainty
The Climate Change-Style Gamble