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Use and Communication of Probabilistic Forecasts

Adrian Elmes Raftery

August 2014 CSSS Working Paper #145



Probabilistic forecasts are becoming more and more available. How should they be used and communicated? What are the obstacles to their use in practice? I review experience with five problems where probabilistic forecasting played an important role. This leads me to identify five types of potential users: Low Stakes Users, who don't need probabilistic forecasts; General Assessors, who need an overall idea of the uncertainty in the forecast; Change Assessors, who need to know if a change is out of line with expectations; Risk Avoiders, who wish to limit the risk of an adverse outcome; and Decision Theorists, who quantify their loss function and perform the decision-theoretic calculations. This suggests that it is important to interact with users and to consider their goals. The cognitive research tells us that calibration is important for trust in probability forecasts, and that it is important to match the verbal expression with the task. The cognitive load should be minimized, reducing the probabilistic forecast to a single percentile if appropriate. Probabilities of adverse events and percentiles of the predictive distribution of quantities of interest seem often to be the best way to summarize probabilistic forecasts. Formal decision theory has an important role, but in a limited range of applications.