Science and Engineering Ethics

, Volume 17, Issue 3, pp 553–570 | Cite as

Classification and Moral Evaluation of Uncertainties in Engineering Modeling

  • Colleen Murphy
  • Paolo Gardoni
  • Charles E. HarrisJr.


Engineers must deal with risks and uncertainties as a part of their professional work and, in particular, uncertainties are inherent to engineering models. Models play a central role in engineering. Models often represent an abstract and idealized version of the mathematical properties of a target. Using models, engineers can investigate and acquire understanding of how an object or phenomenon will perform under specified conditions. This paper defines the different stages of the modeling process in engineering, classifies the various sources of uncertainty that arise in each stage, and discusses the categories into which these uncertainties fall. The paper then considers the way uncertainty and modeling are approached in science and the criteria for evaluating scientific hypotheses, in order to highlight the very different criteria appropriate for the development of models and the treatment of the inherent uncertainties in engineering. Finally, the paper puts forward nine guidelines for the treatment of uncertainty in engineering modeling.


Modeling Risk Uncertainty Engineering Science 


  1. ASCE task committee to achieve the vision for civil engineering in 2025 (2009). Achieve the vision for civil engineering in 2025: A roadmap for the profession. Accessed 11 Jun 2010.
  2. Baker, A. (2010). Simplicity. stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. Accessed 11 Jun 2010.
  3. Cranor, C. F. (1990). Some moral issues in risk assessment. Ethics, 101(1), 123–132.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Cranor, C. F. (2007). Toward a non-consequentialist approach to acceptable risks. In T. Lewens (Ed.), Risk: Philosophical perspectives (pp. 36–55). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  5. Der Kiureghian, A., & Ditlevsen, O. (2009). Aleatory or epistemic? Does it matter?”. Structural Safety, 31(2), 105–112.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Dusek, V. (2006). Philosophy of technology: An introduction. Madden, MA: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  7. Frigg, R., and Hartmann, S. (2006). Models in science. Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. Accessed 10 Jun 2010.
  8. Fung, Y. C., & Tong, P. (2001). Classical and computational solid mechanics. Singapore: World Scientific.Google Scholar
  9. Gardoni, P., Der Kiureghian, A., & Mosalam, K. M. (2002). Probabilistic capacity models and fragility estimates for RC columns based on experimental observations. ASCE Journal of Engineering Mechanics, 128(10), 1024–1038.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Gould, D.K. (2003). The scientific model concept and realism. A Master of Arts Thesis. Texas A&M University.Google Scholar
  11. Hacking, I. (1975). The emergence of probability: A philosophical study of early ideas about probability, induction and statistical inference. New York: Cambridge University Press, London.Google Scholar
  12. Hacking, I. (1984). Experimentation and scientific realism. In J. Leplin (Ed.), Scientific realism (pp. 154–172). Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  13. Hansson, S. V. (2006). Economic (Ir) rationality in risk analysis. Economics and Philosophy, 22, 231–241.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Hansson, S. O. (2007). Philosophical problems in Cost-Benefit analysis. Economics and Philosophy, 23, 163–183.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Harris, C. E., Jr., Pritchard, M. S., & Rabins, M. J. (2009). Engineering ethics: Concepts and cases (4th edition ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.Google Scholar
  16. Hempel, C. G. (1966). Philosophy of natural science. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Pretice.Google Scholar
  17. Hesse, M. (1963). Models and analogies in science. London: Sheed and Ward.Google Scholar
  18. Kaplan, S., & Gerrick, B. J. (1981). On the quantitative definition of risk. Risk Analysis, 1, 11–27.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Macpherson, J. A. E. (2008). Safety, risk acceptability, and morality. Science and Engineering Ethics, 14(3), 377–390.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Moller, N., Hansson, S. O., & Peterson, M. (2006). Safety is more than the antonym of risk. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 23(4), 419–432.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Morgan, M., & Morrison, M. (1999). Models as mediators: Perspectives on natural and social science. New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Murphy, C., & Gardoni, P. (2008). Judging the acceptability and tolerability of societal risks: A capabilities-based approach. Science and Engineering Ethics, 14(1), 77–92.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Murphy, C. and Gardoni, P. (2010). Evaluating the source of the risks associated with natural events. Res Publica, revised and resubmitted.Google Scholar
  24. Parsons, K. (2006). Copernican questions. New York: McGraw-Hill.Google Scholar
  25. Reid, R. L. (2009). Guiding critical infrastructure. ASCE Civil Engineering Magazine, 79(2), 50–55.Google Scholar
  26. Ryle, G. (1949). Concept of mind. New York: Barnes and Noble.Google Scholar
  27. Sunstein, C. (2005). Cost-benefit analysis and the environment. Ethics, 115, 251–285.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. van de Poel, I. (2001). Investigating ethical issues in engineering design. Science and Engineering Ethics, 7, 429–446.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. van de Poel, I., & Gorp, A. C. (2006). The need for ethical reflection in engineering design: The relevance of type of design and design hierarchy. Science, Technology & Human Values, 31(3), 333–360.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. van Frassen, B. (1980). The scientific image. Oxford: Clarendon Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Weinert, F. (1999). Theories, models, and constraints. Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science, 30, 303–333.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Wetmore, J. M. (2008). Engineering with uncertainty: Monitoring air bag performance. Science and Engineering Ethics, 14, 201–218.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Wolff, J. (2006). Risk, fear, blame, shame and the regulation of public safety. Economics and Philosophy, 22, 409–427.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Colleen Murphy
    • 1
  • Paolo Gardoni
    • 2
  • Charles E. HarrisJr.
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyTexas A&M UniversityCollege StationUSA
  2. 2.Zachry Department of Civil EngineeringTexas A&M UniversityCollege StationUSA
  3. 3.Department of PhilosophyTexas A&M UniversityCollege StationUSA

Personalised recommendations