Testing for Ontological Errors in Probabilistic Forecasting Models of Natural Systems

Warner Marzocchi, & Thomas H. Jordan

Published August 2014, SCEC Contribution #1953

Probabilistic forecasting models describe the aleatory variability of natural systems as well as our epistemic uncertainty about how the systems work. Testing a model against observations exposes ontological errors in the representation of a system and its uncertainties. We clarify several conceptual issues regarding the testing of probabilistic forecasting models for ontological errors: the ambiguity of the aleatory/epistemic dichotomy, the quantification of uncertainties as degrees of belief, the interplay between Bayesian and frequentist methods, and the scientific pathway for capturing predictability. We show that testability of the ontological null hypothesis derives from an experimental concept, external to the model, that identifies collections of data, observed and not yet observed, that are judged to be exchangeable when conditioned on a set of explanatory variables. These conditional exchangeability judgments specify observations with well-defined frequencies. Any model predicting these behaviors can thus be tested for ontological error by frequentist methods; e.g., using P-values. In the forecasting problem, prior predictive model checking, rather than posterior predictive checking, is desirable because it provides more severe tests. We illustrate experimental concepts using examples from probabilistic seismic hazard analysis. Severe testing of a model under an appropriate set of experimental concepts is the key to model validation, in which we seek to know if a model replicates the data-generating process well enough to be sufficiently reliable for some useful purpose, such as long-term seismic forecasting. Pessimistic views of system predictability fail to recognize the power of this methodology in separating predictable behaviors from those that are not.

Marzocchi, W., & Jordan, T. H. (2014). Testing for Ontological Errors in Probabilistic Forecasting Models of Natural Systems. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(33), 11973-11978. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1410183111.