Cut it out: How behavioural psychology can help us improve environmental modelling

I am speaking to the environmental modellers now. Imagine, you have been asked to make your model better, to improve its performance, and generally make it a more useful tool for decision makers. You have got a generous budget and free reign to do whatever you want. Just take a short moment to think about what you would do.

When you read the paragraph above, what did you think about? I am going to guess it was something along the lines of “Amazing, I’m going to add in representation of that process the model currently doesn’t have”. Maybe it was how you would increase the resolution of the model or how you would collect more data to add into it.  I am also going to guess that you did not think about what you would take away from your model.

A recent study by Adams et al (2021), published in Nature, found that we are hard wired to solve solutions by adding things in rather than looking at taking things away, despite the fact that taking something away would have been the better and more efficient way. I really encourage you to watch the video below that nicely summarises this work.

I know when I have approached modelling problems, my go to has been to add something in, rather than to consider what could be taken away. Yet, often when we add in new processes or increase the resolutions we may improve our outputs but we also increase the complexity, resulting in slower processing speeds and increased uncertainties. When assessing the models on how useful they are to decision makers, we may have actually made them worse.

The European Centre for Medium Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) have recently upgraded their Integrated Forecast System. One of the improvements they made is a great example of taking something away to solve a problem. Previously, they had stored numbers using 64-bits of memory within their computers. Using 64-bit over 32-bit allows you to store bigger numbers, i.e., use more decimal places and increase the precision of the output. This sounds like it is better, it sounds like if you had the option to go to 128-bit you ought to as you could have even bigger numbers and even greater precision still. The flipside is that storing and computing with bigger numbers takes a tiny bit longer to do each time and when multiplied over the vast number of sums the supercomputers at ECMWF do, this adds up. They realised that they did not need that level of precision and, for many processes, using 32-bit instead of 64-bit made little different to the output. Making the switch reduced the computational load by 40%, meaning swifter, and therefore more useful, results.

Photo by Gabriela Palai on

This is not anything new in numerical modelling and reduced-complexity approaches are popular and long established. However, these were designed with a conscious effort to take things away and it is when we stop making this conscious effort that we default back to adding things in as a first option. This is especially true, as the video tells us, when our cognitive load is high. Next time you sit down to solve a modelling problem make sure to remind yourself to stop and think – what can I take away to make this better?


Fridays are my non-work day so I try to write a short blog post on my thoughts about environmental modelling, games, or really anything else that is on my mind. The purpose is for nothing more than the love of writing and for practice but I do hope you enjoy them. For the avoidance of any doubt, all of the views and opinions I express in these blogs are very much my own and not those of my employer.

European Geoscience Union – A Conference of Career Firsts

One thing I’d really like to do in 2021 is get back into writing just for fun. Although I have written a lot academically in the last few years, my space and time to just write my thoughts had become really squeezed. I hope to use some spare time on Friday mornings to quickly put a few words together about what’s on my mind at the time and re-engage with the craft. These are my own personal views and opinions.

European Geoscience Union – A Conference of Career Firsts

This sort of time, each year, is the annual meeting of the European Geoscience Union, officially known as the General Assembly, but more commonly referred to as EGU. Pre-Covid it is held in a giant conference centre in Vienna, Austria, and attracts geo-scientists from around the world. It’s huge, at the last face-to-face meeting, 2019, 16,273 scientists from 113 countries attended and gave > 16,000 research presentations!

EGU 2010 – before the mega-shed

For my academic career it has been a really important research meeting. Not only is it a place to catch up with all the latest research in your field, and also many other fields you fancy dipping your toe into, it is a chance to catch up with friends, former colleagues, and co-authors, that otherwise would be spread all around the world. It’s also a chance to make new friends or to bug that researcher whose research you love.

EGU has been a place for a lot of career firsts for me. In 2010, it was my first research conference, in 2011 I presented my research, as a poster, for the first time, followed the year after with my first oral presentation. I remember this being hugely stressful as I was presenting in one of the largest halls with a screen the size of a cinema screen. It was quite intimidating but the feeling after you’ve presented is a buzz I’ve grown to love. Networking is something I find difficult but I also find it a whole lot easier if I know people have seen me present.

Me presenting my research in 2011 – photo by Dr Suman Singha (above). The huge conference hall where I first gave a talk about my research (below, it got busier!)

This year, the second year of virtual EGU, attended from my home office space, was also a year of firsts. For the first time I have seen students I support presenttheir research and even convene their own sessions – firsts for them at the conference too. I am so proud of what they have achieved and that is an indescribable feeling, a buzz I think is even better than presenting yourself.

I am very much looking forward to the 2022 EGU conference. We’re all hoping this will be a first for the conference organisers too. Whilst we all acknowledge that virtual conference could never replace the experience of a face-to-face meeting, I don’t think we could maintain our credibility if we go straight back to 16,000 people travelling from across the globe, often by air, to discuss geoscience. We need to reduce the climate impacts of such meetings and also to increase the accessibility of them. EGU 2022 is set to be the first ‘blended’ meeting for the conference, with options to attend in person, or to participate virtually. I’m really looking forward to this first experience.


Baklava and an iced-coffee in the Greek restaurant on the banks of the Danube – my heaven.

Some new games

One thing I’d really like to do in 2021 is get back into writing just for fun. Although I have written a lot academically in the last few years, my space and time to just write my thoughts had become really squeezed. I hope to use some spare time on Friday mornings to quickly put a few words together about what’s on my mind at the time and re-engage with the craft. These are my own personal views and opinions.

Some new games

Anyone who knows me, or has come across me on Twitter, will have picked up that I am strongly associated with games. I have used games as part of, and to communicate, my research for several years, having founded SeriousGeoGames, then the Earth Arcade, and still supporting those projects now as a visiting researcher to the Energy and Environment Institute. It makes me really happy that I left the EEI with games firmly established within its research culture, whether it’s Steven Forrest’s work on seriousgames for governance, Christina Roggatz’s Crabby’s Reef, or Simon Waldman and Aura students supporting the IndieCade Climate Game Jam*. I like to think I contributed to this in at least some small way.

However, rarely do I talk about the games I play for fun, in my own time. Mainly, I play a few in-depth games ALOT. Football Manager is my biggest time sink and I love to take a team from the very lowest leagues to the very top (something that would be impossible with a European Super League). I also love Cities: Skylines and constructing large cities with sustainable, multi-model transport systems. And obviously, I’m a Pokemon fanatic.

With Covid restrictions saving me money on my bus commute (>£25 a week), I was finally able to get a Nintendo Switch, and promptly played only Pokemon on it. Having finished the Pokemon storyline yonks ago, I was feeling guilty that the Switch was sitting in the cupboard, unplayed. It was a waste of such a brilliant device, so for my birthday last week I bought myself a couple of new games.

First was Scott Pilgrim Versus the World. I wanted this game so bad. I adore everything about Scott Pilgrim, the aesthetics, the style, the humour, the soundtrack that Edgar Wright put together, I love it all. The game, a re-release of an older game that was pulled for licensing reasons, is a side scrolling brawler that reminded me of playing Streets of Rage on my mate’s Mega Drive many years ago. On top of that is the retro 8-bit style graphics and soundtrack. I should love this game to bits.

But, it is so hard! I’m awful at any game that requires hand-to-eye co-ordination, so I’d knew I’d struggle, but this game is really hard and I gave up frustrated that I couldn’t make it past the first boss before Game Over and having to start all over again. I’m left looking for cheat codes just so I can experience the game at all…

The other game I bought was one I have wanted for a long time and it is honking brilliant – Untitled Goose Game. This game is so much fun. It is a gentle puzzler game set in a quaint English village where you play a naughty goose causing havoc. The cartoon graphics are lovely and the soundtrack is as gentle as the game play, as you set about tasks like spraying a gardener with his own hose or tricking him into hammering his own thumb using your honk superpower.

What I really love about it is the two player mode. This is a non-violent, fun game that my wife Amy enjoys playing alongside me. Two geese on the loose is more fun than one. The only downside is that it is quite a small game with very limited replay value and I know I’m going to be sad when I’ve finish it.

I’d happily recommend both games but caveat that by saying only go for Scott Pilgrim if you’re up to the challenge. Sadly, I’m not. If there are any games you would recommend, please comment below.


*Add to this list Kelly Stanford’s Resilience card game and Josh Wolstenholme’s 360 Lab, and I’ve still probably missed loads!

On the useful-ness of models

One thing I’d really like to do in 2021 is get back into writing just for fun. Although I have written a lot academically in the last few years, my space and time to just write my thoughts had become really squeezed. I hope to use some spare time on Friday mornings to quickly put a few words together about what’s on my mind at the time and re-engage with the craft. These are my own personal views and opinions.

On the useful-ness of models

Most numerical modellers will be familiar with mathematician George Box’s quote “All models are wrong, but some are useful”. I love this quote, as even though I don’t think it was intended for numerical simulations, it strikes right at the heart of many of the issues our research community are trying to address.

Photo by Genaro Servu00edn on

Too often though, we don’t consider how ‘useful’ our models are. How wrong they are? Yes, we look at that all the time. We develop new ways to calculate, express, and communicate how wrong they are. We work hard on new methods and at collecting new, more, and better data so we can make the models less wrong. When we’ve done this, we have models that are either less wrong, which is good as they will be right more often, or are able to show us how wrong they might be, which is also good as it allows people to make better informed choices about risks.

When we do consider how useful a model is, it’s often in the ways discussed above. Providing decision makers with the information about how wrong a model is lets them make a better informed decision. It is more useful to them. Great, box ticked. But, in my opinion, the model does not stop there.

Photo by ThisIsEngineering on

In a recent post for CIWEM, Phiala Mehring, a floodie, research director, and PhD researcher, discussed how we communicate with communities affected, or at risk of being affected, by flooding. It’s a really important post so please go read it here. There was one paragraph that really stood out for me:

“Imagine having lived in your home for three decades, to have a complete stranger knock on your door to say you are at risk of flooding “because the flood model says so”. What do you believe; a model that simulates the area – or your lived experience of more than 30 years?”

In this situation, to this audience, it does not matter how precise and accurate that model had been made. All the effort and hours put in developing methods to communicate how wrong the model might be do not matter either. It also does not matter how useful decision makers found it. Here, in this situation, the model is useless.

How we utilise model results when working out in the real-world communicating flood risk is a crucial facet of the model’s development and its use. It’s just as important as finding reliable and accurate rainfall information to input into it right at the start of the chain. And it’s the reason we should always measure our models by that one criteria George Box proposed to us – how useful they are.

Flood Risk, Resilience and Adaptation Network (FRRAN) Meeting at #EGU18 – An Invite #BSGNews

We would like to invite you to join the Flood Risk, Resilience and Adaptation Network (FRRAN) – an interdisciplinary network, bringing together Early Career Researchers (ECRs) from across the disciplines of geomorphology, hydrology and flood risk, as well as practitioners and industry representatives working in these areas. FRRAN is being set up through the British Society for Geomorphology to address some of the key issues surrounding the incorporation of geomorphology of in all aspects of flooding. We hope to bring together a global network of ECRs working in cognate disciplines to promote integration of the ECR communities of these groups and foster collaborations that may lead to the development of research proposals. Briefly, the network and has four key aims:
1) To integrate researchers and practitioners in cognate disciplines to foster strong, credible, and ground-breaking research proposals addressing the impacts of hydro-geomorphic risk.
2) To develop timely and novel research projects targeted at thematic and strategic calls from RCUK and elsewhere.
3) To embed geomorphology as an important component of future flood risk research and practice, consolidating the BSG’s position for the promotion of the flood resilience agenda, nationally and internationally.
4) To promote ECRs within the BSG membership and beyond, and develop their careers by affording them the opportunity to engage with a range of researchers from other fields.
The network’s steering group comprises of Dr Chris Hackney (Hull), Dr Chris Skinner (Hull), Dr Louise Slater (Loughborough), Dr Georgina Bennett (UEA) and Dr Ed Baynes (Uni Rennes). We would like to invite you to a kick-off meeting for the FRRAN to be held at the upcoming EGU conference in Vienna. The meeting will take place on Thursday 12th in Room 0.16 between 1730 and 1830, leading up to the Bagnold lecture on Thursday evening. There will subsequently be two formal meetings of the FRRAN during 2018 to be held at the University of Hull and the Royal Geographical Society, London (details TBC). We will be gauging interest for these meetings next Thursday. I appreciate that you may not be attending EGU. In that case, please could you let us know via return email whether you are willing to be part of the FRRAN and would like further information on the formal meetings at a later date.
As with all these networks, we rely on word of mouth as much as anything to involve the right people. If you know of anyone who may be interested in being part of the group please do forward this email on. If you know anyone heading to EGU who would be interested, please tell them to come along to the meeting.