By Edmund Chattoe-Brown
(A contribution to the: JASSS-Covid19-Thread)
In the recent discussions about the role of ABM and COVID, there seems to be an emphasis on the purely technical dimensions of modelling. This obviously involves us “playing to our strengths” but unfortunately it may reduce the effectiveness that our potential policy contributions can make. Here are three contextual aspects of policy for consideration to provide a contrast/corrective.
What is “Good” Policy?
Obviously from a modelling perspective good policy involves achieving stated goals. So a model that suggests a lower death rate (or less taxing of critical care facilities) under one intervention rather than another is a potential argument for that intervention. (Though of course how forceful the argument is depends on the quality of the model.) But the problem is that policy is predominantly a political and not a technical process (related arguments are made by Edmonds 2020). The actual goals by which a policy is evaluated may not be limited to the obvious technical ones (even if that is what we hear most about in the public sphere) and, most problematically, there may be goals which policy makers are unwilling to disclose. Since we do not know what these goals are, we cannot tell whether their ends are legitimate (having to negotiate privately with the powerful to achieve anything) or less so (getting re-elected as an end in itself).
Of course, by its nature (being based on both power and secrecy), this problem may be unfixable but even awareness of it may change our modelling perspective in useful ways. Firstly, when academic advice is accused of irrelevance, the academics can only ever be partly to blame. You can only design good policy to the extent that the policy maker is willing to tell you the full evaluation function (to the extent that they know it of course). Obviously, if policy is being measured by things you can’t know about, your advice is at risk of being of limited value. Secondly, with this is mind, we may be able to gain some insight into the hidden agenda of policy by looking at what kind of suggestions tend to be accepted and rejected. Thirdly, once we recognise that there may be “unknown unknowns” we can start to conjecture intelligently about what these could be and take some account of them in our modelling strategies. For example, how many epidemic models consider the financial costs of interventions even approximately? Is the idea that we can and will afford whatever it takes to reduce deaths a blind spot of the “medical model?”
When and How to Intervene
There used to be an (actually rather odd) saying: “You can’t get a baby in a month by making nine women pregnant”. There has been a huge upsurge in interest regarding modelling and its relationship to policy since start of the COVID crisis (of which this theme is just one example) but realising the value of this interest currently faces significant practical problems. Data collection is even harder than usual (as is scholarship in general), there is a limit to how fast good research can ever be done, peer review takes time and so on. The question here is whether any amount of rushing around at the present moment will compensate for neglected activities when scholarship was easier and had more time (an argument also supported by Bithell 2018). The classic example is the muttering in the ABM community about the Ferguson model being many thousands of lines of undocumented C code. Now we are in a crisis, even making the model available was a big ask, let alone making it easier to read so that people might “heckle” it. But what stopped it being available, documented, externally validated and so on before COVID? What do we need to do so that next time there is a pandemic crisis, which there surely will be, “we” (the modelling community very broadly defined) are able to offer the government a “ready” model that has the best features of various modelling techniques, evidence of unfudgeable quality against data, relevant policy scenarios and so on? (Specifically, how will ABM make sure it deserves to play a fit part in this effort?) Apart from the models themselves, what infrastructures, modelling practices, publishing requirements and so on do we need to set up and get working well while we have the time? In practice, given the challenges of making effective contributions right now (and the proliferation of research that has been made available without time for peer review may be actively harmful), this perspective may be the most important thing we can realistically carry into the “post lockdown” world.
What Happens Afterwards?
ABM has taken such a long time to “get to” policy based on data that looking further than the giving of such advice simply seems to have been beyond us. But since policy is what actually happens, we have a serious problem with counterfactuals. If the government decides to “flatten the curve” rather than seek “herd immunity” then we know how the policy implemented relates to the model “findings” (for good or ill) but not how the policy that was not implemented does. Perhaps the outturn of the policy that looked worse in the model would actually have been better had it been implemented?
Unfortunately (this is not a typo), we are about to have an unprecedently large social data set of comparative experiments in the nature and timing of epidemiological interventions, but ABM needs to be ready and willing to engage with this data. I think that ABM probably has a unique contribution to make in “endogenising” the effects of policy implementation and compliance (rather than seeing these, from a “model fitting” perspective, as structural changes to parameter values) but to make this work, we need to show much more interest in data than we have to date.
In 1971, Dutton and Starbuck, in a worryingly neglected article (cited only once in JASSS since 1998 and even then not in respect of model empirics) reported that 81% of the models they surveyed up to 1969 could not achieve even qualitative measurement in both calibration and validation (with only 4% achieving quantitative measurement in both). As a very rough comparison (but still the best available), Angus and Hassani-Mahmooei (2015) showed that just 13% of articles in JASSS published between 2010 and 2012 displayed “results elements” both from the simulation and using empirical material (but the reader cannot tell whether these are qualitative or quantitative elements or whether their joint presence involves comparison as ABM methodology would indicate). It would be hard to make the case that the situation in respect to ABM and data has therefore improved significantly in 4 decades and it is at least possible that it has got worse!
For the purposes of policy making (in the light of the comments above), what matters of course is not whether the ABM community believes that models without data continue to make a useful contribution but whether policy makers do.
Angus, S. D. and Hassani-Mahmooei, B. (2015) “Anarchy” Reigns: A Quantitative Analysis of Agent-Based Modelling Publication Practices in JASSS, 2001-2012, Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 18(4), 16. doi:10.18564/jasss.2952
Bithell, M. (2018) Continuous model development: a plea for persistent virtual worlds, Review of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 22nd August 2018. https://rofasss.org/2018/08/22/mb
Dutton, John M. and Starbuck, William H. (1971) Computer Simulation Models of Human Behavior: A History of an Intellectual Technology. IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man, and Cybernetics, SMC-1(2), 128–171. doi:10.1109/tsmc.1971.4308269
Edmonds, B. (2020) What more is needed for truly democratically accountable modelling? Review of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 2nd May 2020. https://rofasss.org/2020/05/02/democratically-accountable-modelling/
Chattoe-Brown, E. (2020) The Policy Context of Covid19 Agent-Based Modelling. Review of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 4th May 2020. https://rofasss.org/2020/05/04/policy-context/
© The authors under the Creative Commons’ Attribution-NoDerivs (CC BY-ND) Licence (v4.0)