Let me explain something I call the ‘modelling crisis’. It is something that many modellers in one way or another encounter. By being aware we may resolve such a crisis, avoid frustration, and, hopefully, save the world from some bad modelling.
Views on modelling
I first present two views on modelling. Bear with me!
[View 1: Model = world] The first view is that models capture things in the real world pretty well and some models are pretty much representative. And of course this is true. You can add many things to the model and you may have. But if you think along this line, you start seeing the model as if it is the world. At one point you may become rather optimistic about modelling. Well, I really mean to say, you become naive: the model is fabulous. The model can help anyone with any problem only somewhat related to the original idea behind this model. You don’t waste time worrying about the details and sell the model to everyone listening, and you’re quite convinced in the way you do this. You may come to a belief that the model is the truth.
[View 2: Model ≠ world] The second view is that the model can never represent the world adequately enough to really predict what is going on. And of course this is true. But if you think along this line, you can get pretty frustrated: the model is never good enough, because factor A is not in there, mechanism B is biased, etc. At one point you may become quite pessimistic about ‘the model’: will it help anyone anytime soon? You may come to the belief that the model is nonsense (and that modelling itself is nonsense).
As a modeller, you may encounter these views in your modelling journey: in how your model is perceived, in how your model is compared to other models and in the questions you’re asked about your model. And it may the case that you get stuck in either one of the views yourself. And you may not be aware, but you might still behave accordingly.
Let’s conceive the idea of having a business doing modelling: we are ambitious and successful! What might happen over time with our business and with our clients?
- Your clients love your business – Clients can ask us any question and they will get a very precise answer back! Anytime we give a good result, a result that comes true in some sense, we are praised, and our reputation grows. Anytime we give a bad result, something that turns out quite different from what we’d expected, we can blame the particular circumstances which could not have been foreseen or argue that this result is basically out of the original scope. Our modesty makes our reputation grow! And it makes us proud!
- Assets need protection – Over time, our model/business reputation becomes more and more important. You should ask us for any modelling job because we’ve modelled (this) for decades. Any question goes into our fabulous model that can Answer Any Question In A Minute (AAQIAM). Our models became patchworks because of questions that were not so easy to fit in. But obviously, as a whole, the model is great. More than great: it is the best! The models are our key assets: they need to be protected. In a board meeting we decide that we should not show the insides of our models anymore. We should keep them secret.
- Modelling schools – Habits emerge of how our models are used, what kind of analysis we do, and which we don’t. Core assumptions that we always make with our model are accepted and forgotten. We get used to those assumptions, we won’t change them anyway and probably we can’t. It is not really needed to think about the consequences of those assumptions anyway. We stick to the basics, represent the results in the way that the client can use it, and mention in footnotes how much detail is underneath, and that some caution is warranted in interpretation of the results. Other modelling schools may also emerge, but they really can’t deliver the precision/breadth of what we have been doing for decades, so they are not relevant, not really, anyway.
- Distrusting all models – Another kind of people, typically not your clients, start distrusting the modelling business completely. They get upset in discussions: why worry about discussing the model details: there is always something missing anyway. And it is impossible to quantify anything, really. They decide that it is better to ignore model geeks completely and just follow their own reasoning. It doesn’t matter that this reasoning can’t be backed up with facts (such as a modelled reality). They don’t believe that it be done could anyway. So the problem is not their reasoning, it is the inability of quantitative science.
Here is the crisis
At this point, people stop debating the crucial elements in our models and the ambition for model innovation goes out of the window. I would say, we end up in a modelling crisis. At some point, decisions have to be made in the real world, and they can either be inspired by good modelling, by bad modelling, or not by modelling at all.
The way out of the modelling crisis
How can such a modelling crisis be resolved? First, we need to accept that the model ≠ world, so we don’t necessarily need to predict. We also need to accept that modelling can certainly be useful, for example when it helps to find clear and explicit reasoning/underpinning of an argument.
- We should focus more on the problem that we really want to address, and for that problem, argue how modelling can actually contribute to a solution for that problem. This should result in better modelling questions, because modelling is a means, not an end. We should stop trying to outsource the thinking to a model.
- Following from this point, we should be very explicit about the modelling purpose: in what way does the modelling contribute to solving the problem identified earlier? We have to be aware that different kinds of purposes lead to different styles of reasoning, and, consequently, to different strengths and weaknesses in the modelling that we do. Consider the differences between prediction, explanation, theoretical exposition, description and illustration as types of modelling purpose, see (Edmonds 2017), (more types are possible).
- Following this point, we should accept the importance of creativity and the process in modelling. Science is about reasoned, reproducible work. But, paradoxically, good science does not come from a linear, step-by-step approach. Accepting this, modelling can help both in the creative process by exploring possible ideas, explicating an intuition as well as in justification and underpinning of a very particular reasoning. Next, it is important avoid mixing these perspectives up. The modelling process is as relevant as the model outcome. In the end, the reasoning should be standalone and strong (also without the model). But you may have needed the model to find it.
- We should adhere to better modelling practices and develop the tooling to accommodate them. For ABM, many successful developments are ongoing: we should be explicit and transparent about assumptions we are making (e.g. the ODD protocol, Polhill et al. 2008). We should develop requirements and procedures for modelling studies, with respect to how the analysis is performed, also if clients don’t ask for it (validity, robustness of findings, sensitivity of outcomes, analysis of uncertainties). For some sectors, such requirements have been developed. The discussion around practices and validation is prominent in ABMs, where some ‘issues’ may be considered obvious (see for instance Heath, Hill, and Ciarallo 2009, the effort through CoMSES), but they should be asked for any type of model. In fact, we should share, debate on, and work with all types of models that are already out there (again, such as the great efforts through CoMSES), and consider forms of multi-modelling to save time and effort and benefit from strengths of different model formalisms.
- We should start looking for good examples: get inspired and share them. Personally I like Basic Traffic from the NetLogo library, it does not predict you where traffic jams are, but it clearly shows the worth of slowing down earlier. Another may be the Limits to Growth, irrespective of its predictive power.
- We should start doing it better ourselves, so that we show others that it can be done!
Heath, B., Hill, R. and Ciarallo, F. (2009). A Survey of Agent-Based Modeling Practices (January 1998 to July 2008). Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation 12(4):9. http://jasss.soc.surrey.ac.uk/12/4/9.html
Polhill, J. Gary, Dawn Parker, Daniel Brown, and Volker Grimm. (2008). Using the ODD Protocol for Describing Three Agent-Based Social Simulation Models of Land-Use Change. Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation 11(2): 3.
Edmonds, B. (2017) Five modelling purposes, Centre for Policy Modelling Discussion Paper CPM-17-238, http://cfpm.org/discussionpapers/192/
Chappin, E.J.L. (2018) Escaping the modelling crisis. Review of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 12th October 2018. https://rofasss.org/2018/10/12/ec/