The Reality of Computer Models: Statistics and Virtual Science

  • Date: 02/19/2007

Jerome Sacks (National Institute of Statistical Sciences)


University of Alberta


Computer models are imperfect representations of real phenomena. An
austere view is that validating a model cannot be done, the "primary
value of models is heuristic: models are representations, useful for
guiding further study but not susceptible to proof." This view may have
substantial basis in purely scientific roles, as distinct from a
model's use in policy and engineering contexts. But the real validation
issue, we contend, is not whether a model is absolutely correct or only
a useful guide. Rather, it is to assess the degree to which it is an
effective surrogate for reality: does the model provide predictions
accurate enough for intended use?

Incisive argument on the validity of models, seen as assessment of
their utility, has previously been hampered by the lack of a structure
in which quantitative evaluation of a model's performance can be
addressed. The lack has given wide license to challenge computer model
predictions (just what is the uncertainty in temperature predictions connected with increases in CO2?). A structure for validation should:

  • Permit clear cut statements on what and how performances are to be addressed and assessed;
  • Account
    for uncertainties stemming from a multiplicity of sources including
    field measurements and, especially, model inadequacies; and
  • Recognize
    the confounding of calibration/tuning with model inadequacy – tuning
    can mask flaws in the model; flaws in the model may lead to incorrect
    values for calibration parameters.

We will describe such a structure (and applications). It is built on methods and concepts for the statistical design and analysis of virtual experiments, drawing on elements of Gaussian stochastic processes and Bayesian analysis.

Other Information: 

10th Anniversary Speaker Series 2007