Communicating uncertainty: design patterns for framing model results in scientific publications

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Nov 29, 2015
 Guillaume J.H.A., El Sawah S., Jakeman A.J., Kummu M.



Uncertainty is a prominent issue in modelling. We learn early in our studies that “all models are wrong, but some are useful.” We also learn accompanying techniques for quantifying performance, and methods for addressing uncertainty within our analyses. When it comes to publishing our results, communicating uncertainty appears to be part of the craft side of modelling, one that we learn best by experience. Sooner or later, we discover that reviewers (and the reader) are willing to accept limitations of our modelling if we use certain key phrases (e.g. “left to future work”) or subtly change our wording (e.g. “seems to indicate” vs. “proves”). Our writing effectively frames the model results, implicitly conveying the author’s judgement about model uncertainty, confidence about results and shaping the reader’s expectations of how the model may be wrong and how it is still useful. 

While it does not appear to have been broached in the literature on uncertainty in modelling, the framing of model results appears to be one of the primary means by which modellers have addressed uncertainty, and specifically communication of uncertainty, within scientific publications. It is one of the core practices that new modellers need to learn to ensure that their model-based analyses are considered to be credible and useful. Unfortunately, this practice cannot be easily distilled into an algorithm, method or recipe. As with other aspects of the ‘art’ of modelling, there does however appear to be some knowledge that should ideally be transferable.

This paper takes the approach of identifying ‘design patterns’ that are used for framing model results in order to communicate uncertainty. Design patterns are high-level concepts that describe widely applicable solutions to common problems. Design patterns are a communication technique for structuring and illuminating knowledge which might be tacit, subtle and hard to precisely pin-down. Patterns provide a more structured way to communicate research practices than case studies. One example of a common pattern in scientific publications is to ‘Validate & Defend’ the analysis. The author attempts to anticipate all criticism and convince the reader that their work is unequivocally correct. This is rarely realistic in environmental modelling, so other more common patterns include ‘Step towards a goal’ and ‘Build the foundations’ suggesting to the reader that while the current work respectively represents an incomplete or a solid base, future work is necessary before drawing firm conclusions. While a pattern does not tell the modeller what to write, it acts as a reminder of the type of language involved, and provides a shorthand for discussing alternative framing(s) they could be using. These patterns identified apply specifically for one-way written communication, as in the case of scientific publications, but may still be of use in other communication contexts.

This paper will identify and describe a preliminary set of these design patterns, providing examples and justifying their utility, with the aim of seeking feedback from the modelling community. While future work is necessary, initial results seem to indicate that communicating uncertainty by explicitly framing model results is a core modelling practice that will strongly benefit from being more formally described. It is hoped that in the future uncertainty communication will be more critically aware of which pattern/method is being addressed so that the client, be it researchers, commissioners of research or other interest groups, more clearly understands what has been achieved and what knowledge can be used. 

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