By Bruce Edmonds
(A contribution to the: JASSS-Covid19-Thread)
In the context of the Covid19 outbreak, the (Squazzoni et al 2020) paper argued for the importance of making complex simulation models open (a call reiterated in Barton et al 2020) and that relevant data needs to be made available to modellers. These are important steps but, I argue, more is needed.
The Central Dilemma
The crux of the dilemma is as follows. Complex and urgent situations (such as the Covid19 pandemic) are beyond the human mind to encompass – there are just too many possible interactions and complexities. For this reason one needs complex models, to leverage some understanding of the situation as a guide for what to do. We can not directly understand the situation, but we can understand some of what a complex model tells us about the situation. The difficulty is that such models are, themselves, complex and difficult to understand. It is easy to deceive oneself using such a model. Professional modellers only just manage to get some understanding of such models (and then, usually, only with help and critique from many other modellers and having worked on it for some time: Edmonds 2020) – politicians and the public have no chance of doing so. Given this situation, any decision-makers or policy actors are in an invidious position – whether to trust what the expert modellers say if it contradicts their own judgement. They will be criticised either way if, in hindsight, that decision appears to have been wrong. Even if the advice supports their judgement there is the danger of giving false confidence.
What options does such a policy maker have? In authoritarian or secretive states there is no problem (for the policy makers) – they can listen to who they like (hiring or firing advisers until they get advice they are satisfied with), and then either claim credit if it turned out to be right or blame the advisers if it was not. However, such decisions are very often not value-free technocratic decisions, but ones that involve complex trade-offs that affect people’s lives. In these cases the democratic process is important for getting good (or at least accountable) decisions. However, democratic debate and scientific rigour often do not mix well [note 1].
A Cautionary Tale
As discussed in (Adoha & Edmonds 2019) Scientific modelling can make things worse, as in the case of the North Atlantic Cod Fisheries Collapse. In this case, the modellers became enmeshed within the standards and wishes of those managing the situation and ended up confirming their wishful thinking. An effect of technocratising the decision-making about how much it is safe to catch had the effect of narrowing down the debate to particular measurement and modelling processes (which turned out to be gravely mistaken). In doing so the modellers contributed to the collapse of the industry, with severe social and ecological consequences.
What to do?
How to best interface between scientific and policy processes is not clear, however some directions are becoming apparent.
- That the process of developing and giving advice to policy actors should become more transparent, including who is giving advice and on what basis. In particular, any reservations or caveats that the experts add should be open to scrutiny so the line between advice (by the experts) and decision-making (by the politicians) is clearer.
- That such experts are careful not to over-state or hype their own results. For example, implying that their model can predict (or forecast) the future of complex situations and so anticipate the effects of policy before implementation (de Matos Fernandes and Keijzer 2020). Often a reliable assessment of results only occurs after a period of academic scrutiny and debate.
- Policy actors need to learn a little bit about modelling, in particular when and how modelling can be reliably used. This is discussed in (Government Office for Science 2018, Calder et al. 2018) which also includes a very useful checklist for policy actors who deal with modellers.
- That the public learn some maturity about the uncertainties in scientific debate and conclusions. Preliminary results and critiques tend to be jumped on too early to support one side within polarised debate or models rejected simply on the grounds they are not 100% certain. We need to collectively develop ways of facing and living with uncertainty.
- That the decision-making process is kept as open to input as possible. That the modelling (and its limitations) should not be used as an excuse to limit what the voices that are heard, or the debate to a purely technical one, excluding values ( Edmonds 2017).
- That public funding bodies and journals should insist on researchers making their full code and documentation available to others for scrutiny, checking and further development (readers can help by signing the Open Modelling Foundation’s open letter and the campaign for Democratically Accountable Modelling’s manifesto).
Some Relevant Resources
- CoMSeS.net — a collection of resources for computational model-based science, including a platform for publicly sharing simulation model code and documentation and forums for discussion of relevant issues (including one for covid19 models)
- The Open Modelling Foundation — an international open science community that works to enable the next generation modelling of human and natural systems, including its standards and methodology.
- The European Social Simulation Association — which is planning to launch some initiatives to encourage better modelling standards and facilitate access to data.
- The Campaign for Democratic Modelling — which campaigns concerning the issues described in this article.
note1: As an example of this see accounts of the relationship between the UK scientific advisory committees and the Government in the Financial Times and BuzzFeed.
Barton et al. (2020) Call for transparency of COVID-19 models. Science, Vol. 368(6490), 482-483. doi:10.1126/science.abb8637
http://cfpm.org/discussionpapers/236)Edmonds, B. (2017) Some pitfalls to beware when applying models to issues of policy relevance. In Edmonds, B. & Meyer, R. (eds.) Simulating Social Complexity – a handbook, 2nd edition. Springer, 801-822. (see also
Edmonds, B. (2020) Good Modelling Takes a Lot of Time and Many Eyes. Review of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 13th April 2020. https://rofasss.org/2020/04/13/a-lot-of-time-and-many-eyes/
de Matos Fernandes, C. A. and Keijzer, M. A. (2020) No one can predict the future: More than a semantic dispute. Review of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 15th April 2020. https://rofasss.org/2020/04/15/no-one-can-predict-the-future/
Government Office for Science (2018) Computational Modelling: Technological Futures. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/computational-modelling-blackett-review
Squazzoni, F., Polhill, J. G., Edmonds, B., Ahrweiler, P., Antosz, P., Scholz, G., Chappin, É., Borit, M., Verhagen, H., Giardini, F. and Gilbert, N. (2020) Computational Models That Matter During a Global Pandemic Outbreak: A Call to Action. Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 23(2):10. <http://jasss.soc.surrey.ac.uk/23/2/10.html>. doi: 10.18564/jasss.4298
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/
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