AMS conference report: day 4

The AMS is re-issuing its statement on the necessity of using probability in forecasts. I am on the committee that is re-drafting, or, as they to say, “wordsmithing”, it. If you know anything about how committees write “statements” you’ll know exactly what to expect. I wrote, using material people had generated before, a just-over-one-page document months ago and gave it to the committee. The thing then bloomed into a ten-page monster and reads a lot like a news report. Did you ever notice how people switch to a sort of newsspeak, or stilted, vocabulary when talking to the press? Well, the statement reads like that.

But the gist is still important: all forecasts need to include a statement of their uncertainty, that is, they need to be probabilistic. For example, you shouldn’t just say that tomorrow’s max temperature will be “50 degrees”, but “there’s a 90% chance it will be between 47 and 52 degrees.” The same thing goes for climate forecasts, too. You cannot just say, “Mankind is surely causing all ills” but that “Mankind is surely causing all ills unless you vote for me to solve the crisis.”
My friend Tom Hamill lead a Town Hall meeting of a new group that wants to lead the way to insert uncertainty into forecasts in a programmatic way. Tom’s with NOAA and has a lot of experience with ensemble forecasting, which I’ll explain later. Point is: people are just starting to come to the idea that predictions are not certain. Yes, even the ones you hear about in the newspaper.

I spent the rest of the day chairing a session of statisticians and “artificial” intelligence computer guys. Lovely people, all. But rather too inclined to believe their own press results of neural nets being “universal approximators”, meaning, to them, that you don’t need any other kind of probability model except neural nets. I’ll explain these things later, too, except I’ll note that when they, NNs, first gained notoriety, there was a consensus among computer scientists that all modeling problems were solved, intelligent machines able to think were just about to happen, and etc. etc. Yes, a consensus. Needless to say, but I’ll say it anyway, it didn’t happen.

The conference does go for one more day, but I’m out this morning. Besides, it’s an unwritten, but well known fact, that they don’t always schedule the best talks on the last day. Because of this, they even resort to bribery and are awarding door prizes to people who show up to the exhibit hall today.


  1. William, I just wanted to write and tell you how much I appreciate your posts — discussions and conference reports. I am a software tester (iusing SQL queries) and working to get a better feel for statistics. Your blog has a unique feel and is both entertaining and informative. Thanks.

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