Using Stan in an agent-based model: Simulation suggests that a market could be useful for building public consensus on climate change

December 5, 2016

(This article was originally published at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science, and syndicated at StatsBlogs.)


Jonathan Gilligan writes:

I’m writing to let you know about a preprint that uses Stan in what I think is a novel manner: Two graduate students and I developed an agent-based simulation of a prediction market for climate, in which traders buy and sell securities that are essentially bets on what the global average temperature will be at some future time. We use Stan as part of the model: at every time step, simulated traders acquire new information and use this information to update their statistical models of climate processes and generate predictions about the future.

J.J. Nay, M. Van der Linden, and J.M. Gilligan, Betting and Belief: Prediction Markets and Attribution of Climate Change, (code here).

ABSTRACT: Despite much scientific evidence, a large fraction of the American public doubts that greenhouse gases are causing global warming. We present a simulation model as a computational test-bed for climate prediction markets. Traders adapt their beliefs about future temperatures based on the profits of other traders in their social network. We simulate two alternative climate futures, in which global temperatures are primarily driven either by carbon dioxide or by solar irradiance. These represent, respectively, the scientific consensus and a hypothesis advanced by prominent skeptics. We conduct sensitivity analyses to determine how a variety of factors describing both the market and the physical climate may affect traders’ beliefs about the cause of global climate change. Market participation causes most traders to converge quickly toward believing the “true” climate model, suggesting that a climate market could be useful for building public consensus.

Our simulated traders treat the global temperature as linear function of a forcing term (either the logarithm of the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration or the total solar irradiance) plus an auto-correlated noise process. Each trader has an individual belief about the cause of climate change, and uses the corresponding forcing term. At each time step, the simulated traders use past temperatures to fit parameters for their time-series models, use these models to extrapolate probability distributions for future temperatures, and use these probability distribution to place bets (buy and sell securities).

Gilligan continues:

We developed our agent-based model in R. At first, we used the well-known nlme package to fit generalized least-squares models of global temperature with ARMA noise, but this was both very slow and unstable: many model runs failed with cryptic and poorly documented error messages from nlme.

Then we tried coding the time series model in Stan. The excellent manual and helpful advice from the Stan users mailing list allowed us to quickly write and debug a time-series model. To our great surprise, the full Bayesian analysis with Stan was much faster than nlme. Moreover, the generated quantities block in a Stan program makes it easy for our agents to generate predicted probability distributions for future temperatures by sampling model parameters from the joint posterior distribution and then simulating a stochastic ARMA noise process.

Fitting the time-series models at each time step is the big bottleneck in our simulation, so the speedup we achieved in moving to Stan helped a lot. This made it much easier to debug and test the model and also to perform a sensitivity analysis that required 5000 simulation runs, each of which called Stan more than 160 times, sampling 4 chains for 800 iterations each. Stan’s design—one slow compilation step that produces a very fast sampler, which can be called over and over—is ideally suited to this project.


Gilligan concludes:

We would like to thank you and the Stan team, not just for writing such a powerful tool, but also for supporting it so well with superb documentation, examples, and the Stan-users email list.

You’re welcome!

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