Treatment of uncertainties in the IPCC: a philosophical analysis

Thursday, 18 December 2014
Julie Jebeile and Isabelle Drouet, University Paris 4, Paris, France
The IPCC produces scientific reports out of findings on climate and climate change. Because the findings are uncertain in many respects, the production of reports requires aggregating assessments of uncertainties of different kinds. This difficult task is currently regulated by the Guidance note for lead authors of the IPCC fifth assessment report on consistent treatment of uncertainties. The note recommends that two metrics—i.e. confidence and likelihood— be used for communicating the degree of certainty in findings. Confidence is expressed qualitatively “based on the type, amount, quality, and consistency of evidence […] and the degree of agreement”, while likelihood is expressed probabilistically “based on statistical analysis of observations or model results, or expert judgment”. Therefore, depending on the evidence evaluated, authors have the choice to present either an assigned level of confidence or a quantified measure of likelihood. But aggregating assessments of uncertainties of these two different kinds express distinct and conflicting methodologies. So the question arises whether the treatment of uncertainties in the IPCC is rationally justified. In order to answer the question, it is worth comparing the IPCC procedures with the formal normative theories of epistemic rationality which have been developed by philosophers. These theories—which include contributions to the philosophy of probability and to bayesian probabilistic confirmation theory—are relevant for our purpose because they are commonly used to assess the rationality of common collective jugement formation based on uncertain knowledge. In this paper we make the comparison and pursue the following objectives: i/we determine whether the IPCC confidence and likelihood can be compared with the notions of uncertainty targeted by or underlying the formal normative theories of epistemic rationality; ii/we investigate whether the formal normative theories of epistemic rationality justify treating uncertainty along those two dimensions, and indicate how this can be avoided.