Confidence as crucial for rational belief and decision

The standard, Bayesian account of rational belief and decision in terms of probability is often argued to be unable to cope properly with severe uncertainty, of the sort ubiquitous in some areas of policy making. Confidence in Beliefs and Rational Decision Making (to appear in the JUly 2019 issue of the journal Economics and Philosophy; pre-print available here) asks what should replace it as a guide for rational decision making. It provides the most comprehensive defense to date of an account of rational belief and decision that reserves a role for the decision maker’s confidence in beliefs (previously endorsed here and here). Beyond being able to cope with severe uncertainty, the account has strong normative credentials on the main fronts typically evoked as relevant for rational belief and decision. It fares particularly well in comparison to other prominent non-Bayesian models.

How scientific articles shape readers’ response to uncertainty

Environmental modelling researchers use a range of technical approaches to manage and characterise uncertainties in their models and in the conclusions they draw from them. In addition, researchers also communicate informally about uncertainty in the text of the journal articles in which they report their findings. This informal communication is a part the ‘craft’ of research, and shapes the way that readers — including referees, editors, researchers and decision makers — will perceive the work and judge its usefulness.

An interdisciplinary team of environmental modellers and philosophers has been studying this informal communication, and has developed a catalogue of different ways in which authors present, or ‘frame’, uncertainties in their work. The study, which also reports the frequencies of different uncertainty frames from a corpus of scientific abstracts, is forthcoming in the journal Water Resources Research: “Towards best practice framing of uncertainty in scientific publications: A review of Water Resources Research abstracts” Joseph Guillaume, Casey Helgeson, Sondoss Elsawah, Anthony Jakeman, and Matti Kummu.

How can the IPCC’s uncertainty framework be related to decision?

How can the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change’s (IPCC) framework for assessing and communicating uncertainty be related to decision making? One way to attack this question is by confronting the framework with recent decision models proposed mainly by economists working on the theory of decision under uncertainty. The confidence-based decision model developed in the context of this project (see here or here) emerges as best equipped, among major existing approaches, to fully utilise the information provided by the IPCC. Moroever, the connection of IPCC conclusions with decision making via such a model brings out some an apparently novel recommendations for future uncertainty reporting.

For more details, see Climate Change Assessments: Confidence Probability and Decision by R. Bradley, C. Helgeson & B. Hill (forthcoming, Philosophy of Science).