Simulating Nature

A Philosophical Study of Computer-Simulation Uncertainties and Their Role in Climate Science and Policy Advice, Second Edition

By Arthur C. Petersen

© 2012 – Chapman and Hall/CRC

224 pages | 10 B/W Illus.

Purchasing Options:
Paperback: 9781466500624
pub: 2012-04-24
US Dollars$68.95

About the Book

Computer simulation has become an important means for obtaining knowledge about nature. The practice of scientific simulation and the frequent use of uncertain simulation results in public policy raise a wide range of philosophical questions. Most prominently highlighted is the field of anthropogenic climate change—are humans currently changing the climate?

Referring to empirical results from science studies and political science, Simulating Nature: A Philosophical Study of Computer-Simulation Uncertainties and Their Role in Climate Science and Policy Advice, Second Edition addresses questions about the types of uncertainty associated with scientific simulation and about how these uncertainties can be communicated.

The author, who participated in the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) plenaries in 2001 and 2007, discusses the assessment reports and workings of the IPCC. This second edition reflects the latest developments in climate change policy, including a thorough update and rewriting of sections that refer to the IPCC.


"This book can be considered a conceptual book for high-level graduate students as well as scholars from climatology-related fields who wish to understand the philosophy underlying computer-based simulation of climate."

Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, Series A, 2015

"Simulating Nature is deeply rooted in applied statistics with a welcome openness to a few concepts such as risk, values, and uncertainties. This not-so-frequent-nowadays philosophical dimension in statistics is perhaps the strength of this book and that is why it would be important for graduate students who are already familiar with simulation and applied statistics. On the other hand, philosophers, experts in ethics, policymakers, and sociologists of science would certainly be able to follow most of the demonstrations on climate change, but they would probably focus as well on how these concepts and ideas are discussed and legitimised in this book."

—Yves Laberge, Journal of Applied Statistics, 40, 2013

"Amongst the heated politics of climate science, Petersen’s book does a rare thing. As a philosopher he takes a step back and asks, ‘What sort of knowledge is generated by climate models: is it reliable, is it authoritative, how is it used, is it useful?’ This new edition, fully updated six years after the first, should be read by all those producing or using, criticising or praising, believing or disbelieving, knowledge claims based on climate models. At the least, you will better be able to defend your position; and you may even find yourself changing it."

—Mike Hulme, professor of climate change, University of East Anglia, UK

"In this thought-provoking philosophical analysis, Arthur Petersen explores the nature of climate simulation and attendant uncertainties. Building on this evaluation, Petersen considers the complex processes within the scientific community, and between scientists and society, that ultimately determine whether an assessment becomes a robust, shared basis for decision, or contested and a source of dispute. He points out that it is not enough to analyze uncertainty as a purely technical problem. Deeper uncertainties such as those that stem from the way the problem is framed, models are structured, or expert judgments are made, must also be considered. His analysis has implications not only for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and other assessment bodies, but for all who debate the reliability and utility of model simulations as a basis for managing environmental risks in the anthropocene era."

—Richard Moss, senior staff scientist, PNNL Joint Global Change Research Institute, University of Maryland, College Park, USA

Table of Contents



Framing of the Problem

Defining Computer Simulation and Positioning It in Science

Philosophical Approach

Brief Outline of This Study

Simulation Practice, Uncertainty, and Policy Advice

The Practice of Scientific Simulation


The Simulation Laboratory

Elements of Simulation-Laboratory Practice

Plurality of Methodologies for Model Development and Evaluation

Plurality of Values in Simulation Practice

The Practices of Simulation and Experimentation Compared


A Typology of Uncertainty in Scientific Simulation


Locations of Simulation Uncertainty

The Nature of Simulation Uncertainty

The Range of Simulation Uncertainty

Recognised Ignorance in Simulation

The Methodological Unreliability of Simulation

Value Diversity in Simulation Practice

The Uncertainties of Simulation and Experimentation Compared


Assessment of Simulation Uncertainty for Policy Advice


The Sound Science Debate

The Challenge of Postnormal Science

The Role of Simulation Uncertainty in Policy Advice

The Guidance on Uncertainty Assessment and Communication


The Case of Simulating Climate Change

The Practice of Climate Simulation


Functions of Climate Simulation

Varying Climate-Model Concreteness

The Sociopolitical Context of Climate-Simulation Practice

Evaluating the Plurality of Climate-Simulation Models


Uncertainties in Climate Simulation


A General Overview of Uncertainty in Climate Simulation

Climate-Simulation Uncertainty and the Causal

Attribution of Temperature Change


Assessments of Climate-Simulation Uncertainty for Policy Advice


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Its Communication of Climate-Simulation Uncertainty

An Example of Exploiting Societal Perspectives to Communicate Climate-Simulation Uncertainty



Uncertainty Associated with Scientific Simulation

Differences and Similarities between Simulation and Experimental Uncertainty

Assessment and Communication of Scientific Simulation Uncertainties in Science-for-Policy

Uncertainty Associated with the Simulation-Based Attribution of Climate Change to Human Influences

Assessment and Communication of Attribution Uncertainty by the ipcc


Appendix: Proceedings and Discussion of the IPCC Contact Group

Meeting on Attribution, 20 January 2001, Shanghai


Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
MATHEMATICS / Probability & Statistics / General
SCIENCE / Environmental Science