What is Probability?

The paradox of probability

Probability is a quantification of uncertainty. We use probability words in our everyday discourse: impossible, very unlikely, 50:50, likely, 95% certain, almost certain, certain. This suggests a shared understanding of what probability is, and yet it has proved very hard to operationalise probability in a way that is widely accepted.

Uncertainty is subjective

Uncertainty is a property of the mind, and varies between people, according to their learning and experiences, way of thinking, disposition, and mood. Were we being scrupulous we would always say “my probability” or “your probability” but never “the probability”. When we use “the”, it is sometimes justified by convention, in situations of symmetry: tossing a coin, rolling a dice, drawing cards from a pack, balls from a lottery machine. This convention is wrong, but useful — were we to inspect a coin, a dice, a pack of cards, or a lottery machine, we would discover asymmetry.

Agreement about symmetry is an example of a wider phenomenon, namely consensus. If well-informed people agree on a probability, then we might say “the probability”. Probabilities in public discourse are often of this form, for example the IPCC’s “extremely likely” (at least 95% certain) that human activities are the main cause of global warming since the 1950s. Stated probabilities can never be defended as ‘objective’, because they are not. They are defensible when they represent a consensus of well-informed people. People wanting to disparage this type of stated probability will attack the notion of consensus amongst well-informed people, often by setting absurdly high standards for what we mean by ‘consensus’, closer to ‘unanimity’.

Abstraction in mathematics

Probability is a very good example of the development of abstraction in mathematics. Early writers on probability in the 17th century based their calculations strongly on their intuition. By the 19th century mathematicians were discovering that intuition was not good guide to the further development of their subject. Into the 20th century mathematics was increasingly defined by mathematicians as ‘the manipulation of symbols according to rules’, which is the modern definition. What was surprising and gratifying is that mathematical abstraction continued (and continues) to be useful in reasoning about the world. This is known as “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics”.

The abstract theory of probability was finally defined by the great 20th century mathematician Andrey Kolmogorov, in 1933: the recency of this date showing how difficult this was. Kolmogorov’s definition paid no heed at all to what ‘probability’ meant; only the rules for how probabilities behaved were important. Stripped to their essentials, these rules are:

1. If A is a proposition, then Pr(A) >= 0.
2. If A is certainly true, then Pr(A) = 1.
3. If A and B are mutually exclusive (i.e. they cannot both be true), then Pr(A or B) = Pr(A) + Pr(B).

The formal definition is based on advanced mathematical concepts that you might learn in the final year of a maths degree at a top university.

‘Probability theory’ is the study of functions ‘Pr’ which have the three properties listed above. Probability theorists are under no obligations to provide a meaning for ‘Pr’. This obligation falls in particular to applied statisticians (also physicists, computer scientists, and philosophers), who would like to use probability to make useful statements about the world.

Probability and betting

There are several interpretations of probability. Out of these, one interpretation has emerged to be both subjective and generic: probability is your fair price for a bet. If A is a proposition, then Pr(A) is the amount you would pay, in £, for a bet which pays £0 if A turns out to be false, and £1 if A turns out to be true. Under this interpretation rules 1 and 2 are implied by the reasonable preference for not losing money. Rule 3 is also implied by the same preference, although the proof is arcane, compared to simple betting. The overall theorem is called the Dutch Book Theorem: if probabilities are your fair prices for bets, then your bookmaker cannot make you a sure loser if and only if your probabilities obey the three rules.

This interpretation is at once liberating and threatening. It is liberating because it avoids the difficulties of other interpretations, and emphasises what we know to be true, that uncertainty is a property of the mind, and varies from person to person. It is threatening because it does not seem very scientific — betting being rather trivial — and because it does not conform to the way that scientists often use probabilities, although it does conform quite closely to the vernacular use of probabilities. Many scientists will deny that their probability is their fair price for a bet, although they will be hard-pressed to explain what it is, if not.

Blog post by Prof. Jonathan Rougier, Professor of Statistical Science.

First blog in series here.

Second blog in series here

Third blog in series here.

Model uncertainties in multispecies ecological models

We live in an increasingly uncertain world.  Therefore, when we model environmental processes of interest, it is vital to account for the inherent uncertainties in our analyses and ensure that this information is communicated to relevant parties.  Whilst the use of complex statistical models to estimate quantities of interest is becoming increasingly common in environmental sciences, one aspect of uncertainty that is frequently overlooked is that of model uncertainty.  Much of the research I conduct considers this additional aspect of uncertainty quantification; that is not just uncertainty in the quantities of interest, but also in the models that we use to estimate them.

An example of this is in a paper recently published in Ecology and Evolution (Swallow et al., 2016), which looks at how different species of birds that we commonly see in our gardens respond to the same environmental factors (or covariates).  Some of the species have declined rapidly over the past 40 years, whilst others have remained stable or even increased in number.  Possible drivers of these changes that have been suggested include increases in predators, changes in climate and availability of natural food sources.  Statistically speaking, we try to understand and quantify changes in observed numbers of birds by relating them to changes in measured environmental quantities that the birds will be subjected to, such as numbers of predators, weather variables, habitat quality etc.  Most previous analyses have modelled each of the species observed at many different geographical locations (or monitoring sites) independently of each other, and estimated the quantities of interest completely separately, despite the fact that all these species share the same environment and are subject to the same external influences.  So how do we go about accounting for the fact that similar species may share similar population drivers?

This essentially constitutes a model uncertainty problem – that is, which parameters should be shared across which species in our statistical model and which parameters should be distinct?

If we were to consider two different species and use two different environmental factors to explain changes in those species, say habitat type and average monthly temperature, there are four possible models to consider.  That is,

Habitat type
No parameters

This can easily be extended to a higher number of species and covariates.

There is also inevitably going to be some aspects of variability shown by some of the species that we cannot account for through the quantities we have measured.  We account for this using site-specific random effects, which explain variability that is linked to a specific monitoring site, but which is not accounted for by the environmental covariates in the model.  Again, we would usually assume this is a single quantity representing the discrepancy between what we have accounted for using our measured covariates and what is ‘left over’.  Following on from work of previous authors (Lahoz-Monfort et al., 2011), we again split this unexplained variation into two – unexplained variation that is common to all species and unexplained variation that is specific to a single species.  The ratio of these two quantities can give us a good idea of what measurements we may be missing.  Is it additional environmental factors that are wide-ranging in their effects or is it something relating to the specific ecology of an individual species?

In the paper, we apply our method to a large dataset spanning nearly 40 years, collected as part of the British Trust for Ornithology’s Garden Bird Feeding Survey.  We selected two groups of similar species commonly found in UK gardens during the winter.  For ecological reasons, we would expect the species within the two groups to show similar traits, so they act as ideal study species for detecting synchrony in responses to environmental factors.  Whilst most the results were consistent with those from single-species models (e.g. Swallow et al., 2015), studying the species at an ecosystem level also highlighted some additional relationships that it would be impossible to study under more simplistic models.  The results highlight that there is unsurprisingly a large degree of synchrony across many of these species, and that they share many of the traits and drivers of population change.  The synchronies observed in the results corresponded to both significant positive or negative relationships with covariates, as well as those species that collectively show no strong relationship with a given environmental factor.  There is, however, more to the story and some of the species showed strong differences in how they respond to external factors.  Highlighting these differences may offer important information on how best to halt or reverse population declines.

The results from our analyses showed the importance of considering model uncertainty in statistical analyses of this type, and that by incorporating relevant uncertainties, we can improve our understanding of the environmental processes of interest.  Incorporating more data into the analysis will help in further constraining common or shared parameters and reduce uncertainties in them.  It also allows us to guide and improve future data collection procedures if we can gain a better understanding of what is currently missing from our model.

Blog written by Dr Ben Swallow, a Postdoctoral Research Associate, studying Ecological and environmental statistics in the School of Chemistry.


Lahoz-Monfort, J. J., Morgan, B. J. T., Harris, M. P., Wanless, S., & Freeman, S. N. (2011). A capture-recapture model for exploring multi-species synchrony in survival. Methods in Ecology and Evolution, 2(1), 116–124.

Swallow, B., Buckland, S. T., King, R. and Toms, M. P. (2015). Bayesian hierarchical modelling of continuous non-negative longitudinal data with a spike at zero: An application to a study of birds visiting gardens in winter. Biometrical Journal, 58(2), 357–371

Swallow, B., King, R., Buckland, S. T. and Toms, M. P. (2016). Identifying multispecies synchrony in response to environmental covariates. Ecology and Evolution, 6(23), 8515–8525

Figure 1. Blue tits show a highly synchronous response with great tits, and to a lesser degree coal tits, to their surrounding environment.


Figure 2. Male house sparrow feeding on fat balls.  Whilst they show some synchrony in their response to environmental factors, they appear to be subject to a differing ecology to the other two species they were compared with.

Converting probabilities between time-intervals

This is the first in an irregular sequence of snippets about some of the slightly more technical aspects of uncertainty and risk assessment.  If you have a slightly more technical question, then please email me and I will try to answer it with a snippet.

Suppose that an event has a probability of 0.015 (or 1.5%) of happening at least once in the next five years. Then the probability of the event happening at least once in the next year is 0.015 / 5 = 0.003 (or 0.3%), and the probability of it happening at least once in the next 20 years is 0.015 * 4 = 0.06 (or 6%).

Here is the rule for scaling probabilities to different time intervals: if both probabilities (the original one and the new one) are no larger than 0.1 (or 10%), then simply multiply the original probability by the ratio of the new time-interval to the original time-interval, to find the new probability.

This rule is an approximation which breaks down if either of the probabilities is greater than 0.1. For example, to scale a probability of 0.04 in the next 5 years up to 20 years we cannot simply multiply by 4, because the result, 0.16 (or 16%), is larger than 0.1. In this case we have to use the proper rule, which is

p_new = 1 – (1 – p_orig)^(int_new / int_orig)

where ‘^’ reads ‘to the power of’. The example above becomes

p_new = 1 – (1 – 0.04)^(20 / 5) = 0.15 (or 15%).

So the approximation would have been 1 percentage point out in this case. The highlighted text in yellow can be pasted directly into a spreadsheet cell (the answer is 0.1507).

Of course it is unlikely to matter in practice whether the probability is 0.15 or 0.16.  But the difference gets bigger as the probabilities get bigger.  For example, it would definitely be a mistake to multiply a 0.25 one-year probability by 5 to find the five-year probability, because the result would be greater than 1.  Using the formula, the correct answer is a five-year probability of 0.76.

Blog post by Prof. Jonathan Rougier, Professor of Statistical Science.

Second blog in series here.
Third blog in series here.

Image: By Hovik Avetisyan [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Brexit: can research light the way?

What could Brexit mean for UK science? What impact will it have on UK fisheries? Could Brexit be bad news for emissions reductions? These were just some questions discussed at a Parliamentary conference last week, organised by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), the Commons Library and Parliament’s Universities Outreach team.

MPs researchers, Parliamentary staff and academic researchers from across the country came together to consider some of the key policy areas affected by the UK’s decision to leave the EU.

Why does academic research matter to Parliament?

Given the unchartered waters that Parliament is facing as the UK prepares to withdraw from the EU, it is more important than ever that Parliamentary scrutiny and debate is informed by robust and reliable evidence.

Academic research is expected to meet rigorous standards of quality, independence and transparency. Although it is far from being the only source of evidence relevant to Parliament, it has vital role to play in the effective scrutiny of Government.

“Academics can help ensure that we get the best possible outcome for the British public through describing the state of knowledge, setting out comparative knowledge (whether in different territories or over time), and evaluating what’s happening as it plays out” said Penny Young, House of Commons Librarian, in her keynote speech.

Last week’s meeting showcased relevant UK academic research as well as giving participants the opportunity to hear the perspectives and concerns of different groups. With over 100 participants, the organisers made the wise decision to split us up into smaller groups to discuss specific policy areas.  This worked rather well, although most people would have liked to be in several groups at once!

What does the future hold for UK research?

In the session on science and research funding a mix of early career researchers and more seasoned academics set out their top issues. The discussion quickly moved beyond research funding. All the researchers agreed free movement of researchers between the UK, other parts of the EU, and beyond the EU, was a top priority.  Several researchers were concerned that the UK research community would become more isolated as a result of Brexit, making it more difficult to recruit and retain the best academic staff.

The group also discussed what kind of data we needed to gauge the impact of Brexit on UK research.  One researcher argued that if we wait until we have “hard data” – such as statistics on citations, publications and collaborations, it might be too late for decision-makers to intervene in any meaningful way.

Economic Impact of Brexit: New Models Needed

Researchers participating in the session on “trade relations and economic impact” highlighted that research on the economic impact of Brexit tends to focus on trade.  New models are needed that take trade into account, along with other relevant factors such as investment, migration and regulation. Participants also felt that more data on the local effects of trade deals would be useful to policymakers, but there are very few studies looking at such effects because of the many uncertainties involved.

Environment, agriculture and fisheries: ‘Cod Wars’?

What would the loss of subsidies under the Common Agricultural Policy mean for UK agriculture? Participants highlighted that areas such as horticulture and fisheries in particular could end up struggling with workforce retention. On a brighter note, one researcher thought there could be some financial gain for UK fisheries if the UK took back its Economic Exclusion Zone (EEZ), but warned of possible future “Cod Wars” if countries clashed over fishing rights.

Immigration: how many EU nationals live in the UK?

Participants in the immigration discussion group highlighted that we do not have reliable figures for how many EU nationals live in the UK. According to some estimates the figure is around 3 million, but this is based on survey data. More reliable data is needed to make informed policy decisions. Participants also highlighted that while most of the discussion around border control focuses on people, movement of goods across borders was also vitally important.

Energy and climate: who will drive emissions reductions targets?

The energy and climate group considered the impact of Brexit across Europe as a whole. The UK has been a strong driver for ambitious emissions reduction targets for the EU. Would other nations continue to drive such targets? Participants also speculated over whether UK would remain part of the European Emissions Trading Scheme and stay involved with some of the EU’s internal energy market regulatory bodies after Brexit.

Foreign and security policy

Participants covered a huge range of topics from UK-Irish relations to the future of NATO and drug trafficking and border control. The importance of learning lessons from history was a key theme in the session, whether it related to the future of NATO or to major treaty negotiations more generally.

What next…

These conversations were not based entirely on research evidence, not least because it there are simply too many uncertainties for research to answer all our questions on the impact of Brexit. In the end our discussions were based around a mix of anecdote, opinion, and ‘hard’ evidence. Overall it was a very enriching experience and we came away with lots of new contacts and ideas.

Many of the researchers said that they’d had relatively few opportunities to feed into policy discussions with parliament and government and that there needed to be many more meetings like this one!

This article was written for The House of Commons Library Blog Second Reading by Chandy Nath, acting Director of the POST and Cressida Auckland, a POST fellow.

Picture credit: Brexit Scrabble, by Jeff Djevdet; Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC by 2.0)

COP21 daily report: Reflecting on the science of climate change

Cabot Institute Director Professor Rich Pancost will be attending COP21 in Paris as part of the Bristol city-wide team, including the Mayor of Bristol, representatives from Bristol City Council and the Bristol Green Capital Partnership. He will be writing blogs during COP21, reflecting on what is happening in Paris, especially in the Paris and Bristol co-hosted Cities and Regions Pavilion, and also on the conclusion to Bristol’s year as the European Green Capital.  Follow #UoBGreen and #COP21 for live updates from the University of Bristol.


Bristol’s presence at COP21 started with a bang, with some of its most important contributions being showcased as it opened  the Bristol/Paris/ICLEI Cities and Regions Pavilion.  There is a lot to digest from that and that will be the focus of tomorrow’s or Friday’s blog.  Today, however, I am going to take a step back and revisit the climate science that is the basis for the political, entrepreneurial and social actions currently being discussed in Paris.

When I started by PhD in 1992, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere was about 355 ppm and already a huge source of concern to climate scientists.

About one year ago, depending on the station or the season, CO2 levels passed 400 ppm for the first time in human history.  And for the first time in ice core history, extending back nearly 1 million years.  And – based on our recent work using chemical proxies to reconstruct atmospheric carbon dioxide – probably for the first time in about 3 million years.

If we continue burning fossil fuel, even with reduced emissions, we will reach 550 to 700 ppm by the end of this century. Our work and that of others reveals that these are values that the Earth has not experienced for at least 10 million and maybe even 30 million years.

This is causing the Earth to warm.  That relationship is derived from fundamental physics and first articulated by Svante Arrhenius over a century ago.  Our climate models elaborate and clarify this relationship.  Earth history validates and confirms it – when CO2 was higher, the planet was warmer.  And consistent with that, this year is on track to be the warmest in recorded history, with human-induced warming now thought to have warmed our planet by 1C.

This is half of our agreed limit of 2C; and due to the slow response of the climate system, more warming will come.

These are some of the truly eye-opening facts surrounding climate change, the challenge we face and the need for this week’s negotiations.

There are many who will argue that the science of climate change is too uncertain to act upon.  The observations listed above, and many others, reveal that to be a manipulative half-truth.  There is an astonishing amount of knowledge about climate change – and global warming in particular.

Moreover, as Steve Lewandowksy (and Tim Ballard and myself) discussed in an article in the Guardian yesterday, the uncertainty that does exist in our understanding of climate change impacts is cause for mitigative action not complacency.  This was based on our recent volume in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, in which a great diversity of researchers highlight the impact of uncertainty on the economy, cooperation, action and creativity.

This has long been a focus of the Cabot Institute; Living with Environmental Uncertainty is a central tenet of our mission. ]We have hosted consultations and workshops on understanding, constraining and communicating uncertainty; advised decision makers and leaders; produced papers, reports and even handbooks. This year as part of the Green Capital, we framed much of our own activity, as well as our contributions to the Summits, Arts Programme and Festivals, around this theme: The Uncertain World.

A great example of this research is that of the Bristol Glaciology Centre.  Tony Payne was a Lead Author on the IPCC report on ice sheets and sea level rise.  Glacial biogeochemists, Martyn Tranter, Jemma Wadham and Alex Anesio, are studying how surface melting can create dark patches of algal growth which could absorb light and accelerate melting.  Jonathan Bamber led a fascinating expert elicitation study which suggested a wider range of potential sea level rise than previously thought.

All in all, this work is consistent with the most recent IPCC report that sea level rise will likely range from 0.7 to 1.1 m by the end of the century.  However, that range belies deeper and more frightening uncertainty. Professor Bamber spoke about this yesterday at COP21 as part of the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative and Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research session on Irreversible Impacts of Climate Change on Antarctica.  Their presentation highlighted that the IPCC range of potential sea level rise is largely a function of the 2100 time frame applied.  Longer timescales reveal the true magnitude of this threat. The projected ~1m of sea level rise is probably already inevitable. It will be even higher – perhaps several metres higher – if we warm our planet by 2C, and even more so if it warms by the 2.7C that current Paris commitments yield. The geological record suggests even more dramatic potential for sea level rise: 3 million years ago, when CO2 concentrations were last ~400 ppm, sea level might have been 20 m higher.  These changes almost certainly would take place over hundreds of years rather than by 2100.  But their consequences will be vast and irreversible.

Flooding in Clifton, Bristol 2012. Events like these are likely to
become more common. Image credit Jim Freer
This uncertainty is not limited to warming and sea level rise.  Uncertainty is deeply dependent in rainfall forecasts for a warmer world; we know that warmer air can hold more water such that rainfall events are likely to become more extreme.  However, how will that change regionally?  Which areas will become wetter and which drier?  How will that affect food production?  Or soil erosion?

Of course, climate change is about more than just warming, sea level rise and extreme weather.  It is also about the chemistry of our atmosphere, soils and oceans.  Again profound concern and uncertainty is associated with the impact of coastal hypoxia and ocean acidification on marine ecosystems. In fact, it is the biological response to climate change, especially when coupled with all of the other ways we impact nature, that is most uncertain. Unfortunately, Earth history is less useful here.  Even the most rapid global warming events of the past seem to have occurred over thousands of years, far far slower than the change occurring now, a point that emerges again and again in our research and frequently emphasised by the Head of our Global Change Theme Dani Schmidt.

What is happening today appears to be unprecedented in Earth history.

We are creating an Uncertain – but also volatile, extreme and largely unknown world.  Some of that is inevitable.  But much of it is not.   How much will be largely decided in Paris.

But not just by nations.  Also by mayors and councils and LEPs, NGOs, citizens, businesses and other innovation and transformation leaders.  This is why the actions being proposed in the Cities and Regions Pavilion, not just by Bristol but by hundreds of cities and local authorities across the globe, are so very exciting.

This blog is by Prof Rich Pancost, Director of the Cabot Institute at the University of Bristol.  For more information about the University of Bristol at COP21, please visit bristol.ac.uk/green-capital

Prof Rich Pancost

This blog is part of a COP21 daily report series. View other blogs in the series below:

Resilience is inside every one of you – you just have to know where to find it…

Bizarre objects covering the workshop tables. Image credit Amanda Woodman-Hardy

Fourthland came to the Cabot Institute from London to give a workshop which would help us look into how resilience forms an important part of our research across all disciplines. Walking into the room with weird objects laid out and the sound of an Irish choir repeating a hypnotic chant, I instantly knew this would be a very different kind of exploration of our academic research.

A resilient performanceFourthland started their artistic performance by holding a rope and folding it up…cue lots of confused looks around the room and people shifting uneasily in their seats.  I couldn’t help thinking what on earth have I signed myself up to?!  Asking everyone to close their eyes, Fourthland continue to set up the room with props.


Folding of rope. Image credit Amanda Woodman-Hardy

Upon opening of eyes, everyone was asked to communicate through gestures and not use their voice. A volunteer was plucked from the room to randomly play a piano whilst participants took hay, eggshells, string and a big dish of what looked like the biggest poppadum I had ever seen – it was actually a flat bowl made from wax.  Manipulating all these ‘ingredients’ separately in small groups by making straw bundles, ‘moving mountains’ with eggshells, and weaving string in and out and around the room, binding the room together, there was a sense that this had meaning in a way that could not be explained verbally.  This is where writing about the experience is tough.  What on earth was happening, what did it all mean and where was the relevance to resilience?  I couldn’t quite see it at that point…

Fourthland continued and read from a scroll rolled up in a rolling pin.  The scroll contained all the thoughts of the researchers that had contributed to our resilience programme over the last few weeks.  Contributions came from social science, engineering, arts, and the sciences.  After all the noise and manipulating of simple materials subsided, a group of volunteers sat at the front of the room (named the ‘keepers of culture’) reflected on what they thought had just happened.


The Resilience Workshop at Cabot Institute. Image credit Amanda Woodman-Hardy

Digesting the workshop

Taking the time to digest what had just happened was critically important at this point.  We had spent 20 minutes inside this weird bubble of wax and string and sound and eggshells and straw and a whole load of visual and aural bombardments.  How was the room making sense of it all? I was intrigued.

First reactions were that lots had happened without actually seeing it.  Everyone was so engrossed in their little task with their simple material that they didn’t feel like they saw everything that was going on but everyone seemed to sense most stuff that was happening around them, regardless of whether they saw it or not. It wasn’t until everyone stopped and looked around at the transformation of the room that we all realised just how much we had changed our simple materials and our presence in the room.

Cycling and circles were prominent, connecting everyone – whether it was a circular straw wreath, circles in the eggshells or circles of string around the room.
The creation of a circular straw wreath by Cabot Institute academic during
Resilience Workshop. Image credit Amanda Woodman-Hardy
The  people sat around the large wax dish, were told to deconstruct it but ended up remoulding it and building something up instead which demonstrated how resilient we can be. Even if we destroy something, we can still make something out of what remains.  The group reflecting on the deconstruction of the wax bowl felt destructive to change it but then this feeling reversed once they realised that the wax warmed in their hands and became quite malleable. The wax group described resilience through beeswax in that it can be remoulded if you hold it in your hand long enough but you can also snap it causing a shock. The snapping led to a remoulding of the wax which seemed like a natural process.
Workshop participants breaking up a wax bowl.
Image credit Amanda Woodman-Hardy
The group who had the straw (four male academics) weren’t quite sure why they were creating bundles of straw or where they were going with it but they quickly and quietly started a production line to build a big nest. It felt meaningless to them whilst making the straw bundles but reflecting on it afterwards, they felt that they were creating something new, creating new life, and undertaking the basic processes of being human.
Making straw bundles and a nest. Image credit Amanda Woodman-Hardy

The string group, with a bundle of string and no scissors started by miming cats cradles to each other but then realised that not having scissors meant they had to think more creatively about what they were doing with the string…so they connected everyone in the room up. Once everyone in the room was connected they then turned to making the string look more attractive, embellishing it with knots and some borrowed straw.
  The string group felt that this process made them question permission e.g. who they could tie up with string, were they allowed to go around the room with the string in the first place? They noticed that there was a bit of risk-taking involved in tying around people and creating trip hazards. In the space of boredom they associated their permissions. No one had said they couldn’t do what they were doing, so they just assumed that they could. Thinking about resilience it was interesting to see what permission allows you to do but also where it restricts your resilience.
Tying the room up with string and embellishing with straw.
Image credit Amanda Woodman-Hardy
The eggshell groups were told to ‘move mountains’. They got into a rhythm of piling up the eggshells to be ‘something’ and moving them around in a collective action without collective words. One eggshell group found that they had both been working on the same creation but that once they spoke to each other – one was working on creating an ‘island’ and the other a ‘sun’.  They had the same collective result even though they weren’t working with the same idea.  An important lesson – collaboration with people whose ideas or beliefs we don’t hold or understand is vitally important for being resilient to whatever life throws at us. It seemed that order was created out of the chaos of those eggshells.
Two people worked on this pile of eggshells in silence. One thought he was
creating an island, the other the sun. Image credit Amanda Woodman-Hardy

Artistic interpretations of resilience

After hearing peoples general reactions to the performance, Fourthland started to explain the artistic meaning behind the performance.  Each of the resources on the table (straw, eggshells, wax, string) were ‘scarce’ and Fourthland wanted to see how people would be creative whilst the items on the table were running out. The room worked across their academic disciplines by not speaking but creating new things.  
Fourthland asked how people would describe the process if we were to tell it again. A silence ensued whilst participants gathered their thoughts.  Someone said it was ‘child-like’, others said it was ‘different’ and there was audible pleasure in the room emanating from ‘giggles’.  There was uncertainty about what was being created and people wondered what the story was and what their part was in it.
Fourthland discussed how long the process should have taken. Usually they go for forty minutes and interrupt half way through. This time they went for twenty minutes to see what happened when people knew they had limited time.  Reflecting back, knowing that we had limited time to create something from nothing seemed to really kickstart the academics.  Knowing that the Cabot Institute academics have it within themselves to work together on issues of resilience around future cities and societies, climate change and sustainable engineering, it made me realise how important this whole process had been.  In a way it was life affirming because the work they do now has much more meaning and importance, and allowing creativity of ideas through a collective consciousness is invaluable to the future of humanity.

Academic interpretations

Below are some of the academic interpretations of the resilience workshop, all meaningful and thought provoking:
  • One scientist thought the workshop was about the individual stories and that life was precious. 
  • “It was less about looking for someone else in the room who knew what was happening and more about what I knew”.
  • “We took away our human stuff e.g. language and knowledge, and sought an older part of ourselves, like making eye contact in order to make and do and continue”. 
  • A social scientist asked about cooperation and what happens if something happens that is malign like external shocks? What happens to that group cooperation?  If the shock came you would need to know that you can all come together to get over that shock. 
  • Another point well-made was that there was a whole load of people who weren’t in the room. “Every time we try to be resilient we are excluding certain groups”.


Future thoughts on resilience

Fourthland said that the process was all about stories and myths in stories. However one academic counteracted this and said that these myths already exist, for example, in cultures such as Native American Indians and Aborigines. These cultures have passed down ‘myths’ and ‘stories’ generation to generation that will get us through our important global situation. The academic said we shouldn’t necessarily create new stories but “listen to the stories that already exist”.
I don’t know about anyone else in the room but Fourthland totally blew my mind and I feel rather differently about life and the future of life. It is looking increasingly likely that ours and future generations will have to cope with a more uncertain world as global governments are not pulling their weight with regards to environmental policies and regulations around emissions, climate change, environmental degradation and more. But the resilience that lies inside every one of us and the innate capacity that we have to work together even when we have nothing in common gives me much hope for the future.

This blog has been written by Amanda Woodman-Hardy, Coordinator at the Cabot Institute.  Follow @Enviro_Mand.

Amanda Woodman-Hardy
To find out more about Fourthland visit http://fourthland.co.uk/
Fourthland will be holding a resilience exhibition at the Arnolfini in Bristol 26-29 November 2015. More details, all welcome.
If you fancy experiencing what we experienced, they are also holding a conference on 28 November 2015 to explore resilience further. Please contact fourthlandinfo@gmail.com for more information.
For another perspective on this resilience workshop, read Cabot Institute Manager Hayley Shaw’s blog Resilience: The power of being bored and mindless  

Fourthland conference and workshops 26 November – 29 November 2015, bookings open:


The Uncertain World Summit from my perspective (without any uncertainty)

In October we held our Uncertain World Summit, with a host of events and interactions to meet with new communities, think around new ideas and establish new solutions for what’s in store for us in the future.  You can read the other blogs covered in ‘Our Uncertain World’ at the bottom of this blog. Join the conversation with us on Twitter using the hashtag #UncertainWorld and contribute your thoughts and concerns to our (virtual) graffiti wall.  

(Note to the reader: I’d like to mention that, from this point forward, I shall try not to use the word ‘uncertainty’. Not because it isn’t important to talk about, but because I didn’t want this blog to be absorbed by recognising it. There were many things that came out of the Uncertain World Summit that I felt were rather certain and I’ll try to focus on those for a change).

The Uncertain World whiteboard – full of notes and ideas!

The two-day event was replete with bite sized chunks of climate science and policy making, washed down with group discussions and (at the end) Somerset wine.  The attendee list was a vibrant jumble of scientists, philosophers, policy makers and industry leaders gathered together to discuss climate change. To do justice to the wealth of talks would be impossible in a short blog; there were contributions from a range of sectors including health, defence and agriculture as well as from climate researchers on topics such as sea level rise and land use change. Instead of reporting on the presentations, I thought I would focus on some of the recurring themes I noted from the discussions.

The first discussion I want to chalk up on the blogging-blackboard is the issue of science falling into the void between the scientific community and policy makers. The chain of decisions that propels a scientific revelation out of the lab and into the lives of ordinary people is convoluted and confused. How can we expect the world to save itself when the world doesn’t know what it needs saving from? The methodical production of scientific progress wrapped up in a safety blanket of statistical error is hard to chew on for the policy makers and even harder to digest by the general public. This became somewhat of a theme as I moved through the discussion groups (and now I see also in Adam Corner’s blog – it is clearly something that needs to be addressed at the base level).

The second issue to make it onto my summit-summary was how to best assimilate the objectives of climate change prevention into the everyday lives of the population. There was a unanimous resolution that, in order to elicit any modifications in people’s everyday routines, the impetus should be positive rather than negative: Employing threatening forecasts of apocalyptic temperature rise (however true they may be) simply isn’t an effective motivation when the effects aren’t yet tangible to the majority of the population. Instead, communicators should be painting the picture of the switch to green as a platform for economic growth facilitating more job prospects and greater social equality.

Reviving and utilising national (and international) pride is essential
to stimulating a universal response to climate change.

The mechanisms to power this change were harder to isolate. There was recognition that, in order to stimulate a universal response, reviving and utilising national (and international) pride is essential. The argument drew from examples of past regional and global cooperation particularly the World Wars and the first man on the moon. If, as occurred in these examples, a country unites with a mutual aim it can transcend social divisions to become a more efficient machine. Of course, the challenge lies in putting climate change prevention on a sufficiently glamorous pedestal as to evoke such a response. To achieve this there were a host of creative solutions including setting up community food schemes and mobilisation the Woman’s Institute to the cause.

More generally, the discussion wavered around the best ways to implement the outcomes of the discussion, whether through legislation or communication. In a problem so laden with political and economic bias it is unsurprising the current global responses are flavoured with self-interest. Overcoming this, in my opinion, will be the biggest challenge of all. On a brighter note, I found the summit an amazing experience that broadened my thinking on climate change. Despite the gloominess of the situation, I went away from the event feeling that problem-solving had triumphed over defeatism and that there are several paths we can take that can lead us towards a greener future. We just need to persuade everyone to take one.
This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Keri McNamara, a PhD student in the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol.


Other blogs in the Uncertain World series

The Uncertain World: A public dialogue
The Uncertain World: Question Time
The Uncertain World: Reflections
The Uncertain World: Is uncertainty used as a stick with which to beat climate change?

The Uncertain World: Is uncertainty used as a stick with which to beat climate change?

The Cabot Institute is focussing on our Uncertain World this year, with a host of events to meet with new communities, think around new ideas and establish new solutions for what’s in store for us in the future.  We are posting blogs during November on ‘Our Uncertain World’. Join the conversation with us on Twitter using the hashtag #UncertainWorld and contribute your thoughts and concerns to our (virtual) graffiti wall.  Read other blogs in the series by visiting the weblinks at the bottom of this blog.
Uncertainty runs through climate science like the lettering in a stick of rock. It will never ‘go away’ and no communication strategy should ever aim for this. But it does seem as if somehow, uncertainty has become a stick with which to beat climate change in a way that it has not for other areas of science (or perhaps more to the point, in other areas of life). So it is worth asking why this is the case, and what we can do to address this…
My background is in psychology, and there is a rich literature on the psychology of risks perceptions that is certainly relevant to communicating uncertainty in the context of climate change. We know that people discount certain risks and inflate others, given the chance many will lean towards ‘wishful thinking’ rather than a cold, rational assessment of the probabilities.
But to my mind, the challenge of communicating uncertainty in climate change goes beyond presenting information in a way that will ‘beat the biases’ of the human mind – although there is an important role for this. To me it is more about ‘going with the grain’ of public engagement with climate change, starting from ‘where people are’ and working backwards from there, rather than starting with the science…and this tends to be the approach we take at Climate Outreach, the organisation I work for
For example, its now well-established that some of the most important and consistent drivers of public engagement with climate risks are peoples values, worldviews and political orientation. Scepticism is essentially unjustified levels of uncertainty about climate risks…but what drives this perception is people’s ideas about the implications of climate risks for their lives. People work backwards from an outcome that they don’t like the sound of, or feel threatened by, and assess the underlying risks accordingly. So starting with those ‘implications’ is crucial, and why the focus of the second day of the Cabot Institute’s Uncertain World conference is so important.
Where will people live? What impact is climate change having on Civil Society and the voluntary sector? These are crucial questions covered in Day 2, and help to join the dots between the underlying science and the ‘social reality’  of climate change for non-scientists and specialists. Once people are more engaged with ‘solutions’ to climate change that they endorse or can identify with – when people hear a story about climate change that sounds like it was written about them – they are much more likely to be open to the science that defines and describes the underlying problem.
My sense is that the biggest step we could take (as a community of people from very different background and disciplinary perspectives) would be to develop much greater strategic capacity to ‘join the dots’ between the science and the stories that people engage with. At the moment, sustained public engagement with climate change does not happen in a co-ordinated way, but events like the Uncertainty Summit are important ways of bridging the gap between different disciplines and professions. If the expertise and diversity of perspectives represented at this meeting could be marshalled on a permanent basis, to provide a new type of institution explicitly tasked with full-time public engagement on climate change (from the science through to the social reality of the issue), we would have a level of public engagement proportionate to the scale of the challenge we face.
This guest blog was written by Adam Corner, Research Director at Climate Outreach.  Dr Adam Corner is Climate Outreach’s Research Director, and an Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Psychology, Cardiff University. Adam manages Climate Outreach’s research portfolio, oversees the ‘Talking Climate’ project website, and directs Climate Outreach’s collaborations with academic partners. He writes regularly for the national media, including The Guardian and New Scientist magazine.

Climate Outreach recently published a ‘Handbook’ on communicating uncertainty with Steve Lewandowsky and Mary Phillips at University of Bristol. Download the handbook.

Other blogs in the Uncertain World series

The Uncertain World: A public dialogue
The Uncertain World: Question Time
The Uncertain World: Reflections

The Uncertain World: A public dialogue

This week we are focussing on our Uncertain World, with a host of events to meet with new communities, think around new ideas and establish new solutions for what’s in store for us in the future.  We will be posting blogs every day this week on ‘Our Uncertain World’. Join the conversation with us on Twitter using the hashtag #UncertainWorld and contribute your thoughts and concerns to our (virtual) graffiti wall.  Alternatively join us at our Question Time event on Wednesday 21 October at 6 pm and ask our local leaders how they will change their decision making as a result of our changing global environment.  Tickets are free, book here.
Adaptation to climate change presents a unique challenge: the need to make important decisions on the basis of incomplete and uncertain information. We know that future environments shall be different from today’s, but we cannot be certain of the specifics of this change.   The pointing out of uncertainty in predictions is a central part of scientific training and provides an important source of transparency in research. However, this has provided climate-skeptics with ammunition on the future of the climate change, the science that explores it and the related policies of mitigation and adaptation. As Adam Corner has written, the longer that the debates surrounding climate change focus on the uncertainty in future prediction, the less likely it is that any transformation will occur. A translation is necessary – and it is this that provides the focus of a series of events that the Cabot Institute is hosting on uncertainty, its role in our lives and climate change, and the opportunities that it can provide in moving forward.
A recent study has found that we, as individuals, have a tendency to prioritise daily experience over more-statistical knowledge – meaning that our personal experiences may have a greater influence on views of climate change than any conclusions drawn by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [1]. This is important:  the complexity of society, ourselves and our relationships mean that we live with uncertainty every day.  It is this socialised form of uncertainty, present across our world, that this public dialogue sought to explore and understand on the 17th October. Led by Hayley Shaw of the Cabot Institute, this event gave the impetus (and the microphone) to members of the public – allowing the communication of how uncertainty is felt in everyday life, its driver, and hopes and fears within an uncertain future.
The event placed its starting point at the (what would seem simple) question of ‘what is that makes a good and happy life?’ An admission: I am 25 years of age and have never even come close to seeking an answer to this question. Perhaps this is symbolic of my skewed personal priorities, or perhaps it points to something larger – our detachment from the elements of life that we enjoy and take for granted. It is this latter symbolism that guided much of the room’s deliberations – with a focus on the privileges we enjoy often being absent in other parts of the globe. Freedom, security and peace; physical and mental wellbeing; and access to basic resources to fulfil fundamental needs were all mentioned heavily. However, conversations also discussed on the more deliberative elements of life, such as autonomy and empowerment, justice and cultural and intellectual wealth. All of which were perceived by participants as never certain.
There were a number of notable themes that participants drew from these discussions. Firstly, was the near-complete focus on the personal and local level, with limited mentioned of our relationships with our state. Second, all characteristics of ‘a good life’ discussed possess a dual role: of both a driver towards and consequence of happiness. For example: many groups spoke about the need for a sense of purpose to truly enjoy life. However, if we to build a flow chart of these elements of a good life, where would we place motivation and self-worth? Whilst some would place it at the end, with a sense of purpose built by security, health and autonomy. I’d imagine that Iain Duncan Smith would disagree, placing it at the beginning as the gateway to personal growth.

Lastly, these points of stability often compete with each other – resulting in competition and trade-offs between them. It is this presence of uncertainty in securing many of these points that opened up an important conversation surrounding how these can be achieved, and the factors that influence their foundations. The economy reigned supreme in many of these deliberations – with the important links between personal income and fulfilling of basic human needs of food, health and shelter often asserted. Common themes of discussion also focused on the issues of migration and multiculturalism, justice and equality, and the nature of the globalised world and trade. Significantly, these are all systems that not only drive uncertainty but are products of it also.

Comments from the public during the event on Saturday 17 October.

Lastly, the group explored strategies of resistance against these forms of uncertainty. In these discussions, it was our understanding of these drivers of precariousness that provided our personal routes forward – be it via the personal choice of taking money outside of the globalised economy, or the need for solidarity, dialogue and knowledge-exchange as a means to challenge injustices. Notably, many of the answers often lay in the community and individual action, rather than the state – perhaps illustrated by the rise of food banks and cooperative endeavours as a means to fulfil important roles that the state does not.

With uncertainty providing an important issue in the communication of climate change, it was eye-opening to explore its sources in day-to-day life. The message from this event was simple: we all experience, explore and rebel against unpredictability on a daily basis – ranging from the mundane to the existential. However, these sources result in an increased degree of imagination and flexibility in our navigation of life. Without it, life would be pretty dull. Unpredictability does not restrict us from making important everyday decisions – so why should it inhibit any response to climate change? Uncertainty should not always be a dirty word.
[1] Anthony G. Pratt & Elke U. Weber (2014), Perceptions and communication strategies for the many uncertainties relevant for climate policy. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews. 5(2): 219-232.
This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Ed Atkins, a PhD student at the University of Bristol who studies water scarcity and environmental conflict.

Ed Atkins


Other blogs in the Uncertain World series:

The Uncertain World: Question Time

How to communicate effectively about climate change uncertainty

Have you ever struggled with the communication of climate change uncertainties? Are you frustrated by climate sceptics using uncertainty – inherent in any area of complex science – as a justification for delaying policy responses? Then the new ‘Uncertainty Handbook’ – a collaboration between the University of Bristol and its Cabot Institute and the Climate Outreach & Information Network (COIN) – is for you.

The handbook was authored by Dr. Adam Corner (COIN), Professor Stephan Lewandowsky (Cabot Institute, University of Bristol), Dr Mary Phillips (University of Bristol) and Olga Roberts (COIN). All have expertise relating to the role of uncertainty in climate change or how best to communicate it.

The Handbook distills the most important research findings and expert advice on communicating uncertainty into a few pages of practical, easy-to-apply techniques, providing scientists, policymakers and campaigners with the tools they need to communicate more effectively around climate change. Download the report here, and check out our 12 principles for more effectively communicating climate change uncertainty:

  1. Manage your audience’s expectations

People expect science to provide definite ‘answers’, whereas in reality it is a method for asking questions about the world. So manage people’s expectations, and use plenty of analogies from ‘everyday life’ so people can see that uncertainties are everywhere – not just in climate science.

  1. Start with what you know, not what you don’t know

Too often, communicators give the caveats before the take-home message. On many fundamental questions — such as ‘are humans causing climate change?’ and ‘will we cause unprecedented changes to our climate if we don’t reduce the amount of carbon that we burn?’— the science is effectively settled.

  1. Be clear about the scientific consensus

Having a clear and consistent message about the scientific consensus is important as it influences whether people see climate change as a problem that requires an urgent societal response. Use clear graphics like a pie-chart, use a ‘messenger’ who is trustworthy to communicate the consensus, and try to find the closest match between the values of your audience and those of the person communicating the consensus message.

  1. Shift from ‘uncertainty’ to ‘risk’

Most people are used to dealing with the idea of ‘risk’. It is the
language of the insurance, health and national security sectors. So for many audiences — politicians, business leaders, or the military — talking about the
risks of climate change is likely to be more effective than talking about the uncertainties.

  1. Be clear about the type of uncertainty you are talking about

A common strategy of sceptics is to intentionally confuse and conflate different types of uncertainty. So, it’s critical to be clear what type of uncertainty you’re talking about – causes, impacts, policies or solutions – and adopt appropriate language for each.

  1. Understand what is driving people’s views about climate change

Uncertainty about climate change is higher among people with right-leaning political values. However, a growing body of research points to ways of communicating
about climate change that do not threaten conservative belief systems, or which use language that better resonates with the values of the centre-right.

  1. The most important question for climate impacts is ‘when’, not ‘if’

Climate change predictions are usually communicated using a standard ‘uncertain outcome’ format. So a statement might say that sea levels will rise by “between 25 and 68cm, with 50cm being the average projection, by 2072”. But flip the statement around — using an ‘uncertain time’ framing — and suddenly it is clear that the
question is when not if sea levels will rise by 50cm: “Sea levels will rise by at least 50 cm, and this will occur at some time between 2060 and 2093”.

8. Communicate through images and stories
Most people understand the world through stories and images, not lists of numbers, probability statements or technical graphs, and so finding ways of translating and interpreting the technical language found in scientific reports into something more engaging is crucial. A visual artist can capture the concept of sea-level rise better than any graph, and still be factually accurate if they use scientific projections to inform their work.

9. Highlight the ‘positives’ of uncertainty

Research has found that uncertainty is not an inevitable barrier to action, provided communicators frame climate change messages in ways that trigger caution in the face of uncertainty. A ‘positive’ framing of uncertain information would indicate that losses might not happen if preventative action was taken.

  1. Communicate effectively about climate impacts

The question ‘is this weather event caused by climate change?’ is misplaced. When someone has a weak immune system, they are more susceptible to a range of diseases, and no one asks whether each illness was ‘caused’ by a weak immune system. The same logic applies to climate change and some extreme weather events: they are made more likely, and more severe, by climate change.

  1. Have a conversation, not an argument

Despite the disproportionate media attention given to ‘sceptics’, most people simply don’t talk or think about climate change all that much. This means that the very act of having a conversation about climate change — not an argument or repeating a ‘one-shot’ slogan — can be a powerful method of public engagement.

12.  Tell a human story not a scientific one

The amount of carbon dioxide that is emitted over the next 50 years will determine the extent to which our climate changes. So what we choose to do — and how quickly we can muster the collective willpower to do it — is an uncertainty that dwarfs all others.


This blog was written by Adam Corner and reproduced with kind permission from Adam and COIN.  View the original blog.

Dr Adam Corner is COIN’s Research Director, and an Honorary Research Fellow at the School of Psychology, Cardiff University. Adam manages COIN’s research portfolio, oversees the ‘Talking Climate’ project website, and directs COIN’s collaborations with academic partners. He writes regularly for the national media, including The Guardian and New Scientist magazine.