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Socio-Cognitive Systems – a position statement

By Frank Dignum1, Bruce Edmonds2 and Dino Carpentras3

1Department of Computing Science, Faculty of Science and Technology, Umeå University, frank.dignum@umu.se
2Centre for Policy Modelling, Manchester Metropolitan University, bruce@edmonds.name
3Department of Psychology, University of Limerick, dino.carpentras@gmail.com

In this position paper we argue for the creation of a new ‘field’: Socio-Cognitive Systems. The point of doing this is to highlight the importance of a multi-levelled approach to understanding those phenomena where the cognitive and the social are inextricably intertwined – understanding them together.

What goes on ‘in the head’ and what goes on ‘in society’ are complex questions. Each of these deserves serious study on their own – motivating whole fields to answer them. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that these two questions are deeply related. Humans are fundamentally social beings, and it is likely that many features of their cognition have evolved because they enable them to live within groups (Herrmann et al. 20007). Whilst some of these social features can be studied separately (e.g. in a laboratory), others only become fully manifest within society at large. On the other hand, it is also clear that how society ‘happens’ is complicated and subtle and that these processes are shaped by the nature of our cognition. In other words, what people ‘think’ matters for understanding how society ‘is’ and vice versa. For many reasons, both of these questions are difficult to answer. As a result of these difficulties, many compromises are necessary in order to make progress on them, but each compromise also implies some limitations. The main two types of compromise consist of limiting the analysis to only one of the two (i.e. either cognition or society)[1]. To take but a few examples of this.

  1. Neuro-scientists study what happens between systems of neurones to understand how the brain does things and this is so complex that even relatively small ensembles of neurones are at the limits of scientific understanding.
  2. Psychologists see what can be understood of cognition from the outside, usually in the laboratory so that some of the many dimensions can be controlled and isolated. However, what can be reproduced in a laboratory is a limited part of behaviour that might be displayed in a natural social context.
  3. Economists limit themselves to the study of the (largely monetary) exchange of services/things that could occur under assumptions of individual rationality, which is a model of thinking not based upon empirical data at the individual level. Indeed it is known to contradict a lot of the data and may only be a good approximation for average behaviour under very special circumstances.
  4. Ethnomethodologists will enter a social context and describe in detail the social and individual experience there, but not generalise beyond that and not delve into the cognition of those they observe.
  5. Other social scientists will take a broader view, look at a variety of social evidence, and theorise about aspects of that part of society. They (almost always) do not include individual cognition into account in these and do not seek to integrate the social and the cognitive levels.

Each of these in the different ways separate the internal mechanisms of thought from the wider mechanisms of society or limits its focus to a very specific topic. This is understandable; what each is studying is enough to keep them occupied for many lifetimes. However, this means that each of these has developed their own terms, issues, approaches and techniques which make relating results between fields difficult (as Kuhn, 1962, pointed out).

SCS Picture 1

Figure 1: Schematic representation of the relationship between the individual and society. Individuals’ cognition is shaped by society, at the same time, society is shaped by individuals’ beliefs and behaviour.

This separation of the cognitive and the social may get in the way of understanding many things that we observe. Some phenomena seem to involve a combination of these aspects in a fundamental way – the individual (and its cognition) being part of society as well as society being part of the individual. Some examples of this are as follows (but please note that this is far from an exhaustive list).

  • Norms. A social norm is a constraint or obligation upon action imposed by society (or perceived as such). One may well be mistaken about a norm (e.g. whether it is ok to casually talk to others at a bus stop), thus it is also a belief – often not told to one explicitly but something one needs to infer from observation. However, for a social norm to hold it also needs to be an observable convention. Decisions to violate social norms require that the norm is an explicit (referable) object in the cognitive model. But the violation also has social consequences. If people react negatively to violations the norm can be reinforced. But if violations are ignored it might lead to a norm disappearing. How new norms come about, or how old ones fade away, is a complex set of interlocking cognitive and social processes. Thus social norms are a phenomena that essentially involves both the social and the cognitive (Conte et al. 2013).
  • Joint construction of social reality. Many of the constraints on our behaviour come from our perception of social reality. However, we also create this social reality and constantly update it. For example, we can invent a new procedure to select a person as head of department or exit a treaty and thus have different ways of behaving after this change. However, these changes are not unconstrained in themselves. Sometimes the time is “ripe for change”, while at other times resistance is too big for any change to take place (even though a majority of the people involved would like to change). Thus what is socially real for us depends on what people individually believe is real, but this depends in complex ways on what other people believe and their status. And probably even more important: the “strength” of a social structure depends on the use people make of it. E.g. a head of department becomes important if all decisions in the department are deferred to the head. Even though this might not be required by university or law.
  • Identity. Our (social) identity determines the way other people perceive us (e.g. a sports person, a nerd, a family man) and therefore creates expectations about our behaviour. We can create our identities ourselves and cultivate them, but at the same time, when we have a social identity, we try to live up to it. Thus, it will partially determine our goals and reactions and even our feeling of self-esteem when we live up to our identity or fail to do so. As individuals we (at least sometimes) have a choice as to our desired identity, but in practice, this can only be realised with the consent of society. As a runner I might feel the need to run at least three times a week in order for other people to recognize me as runner. At the same time a person known as a runner might be excused from a meeting if training for an important event. Thus reinforcing the importance of the “runner” identity.
  • Social practices. The concept already indicates that social practices are about the way people habitually interact and through this interaction shape social structures. Practices like shaking hands when greeting do not always have to be efficient, but they are extremely socially important. For example, different groups, countries and cultures will have different practices when greeting and performing according to the practice shows whether you are part of the in-group or out-group. However, practices can also change based on circumstances and people, as it happened, for example, to the practice of shaking hands during the covid-19 pandemic. Thus, they are flexible and adapting to the context. They are used as flexible mechanisms to efficiently fit interactions in groups, connecting persons and group behaviour.

As a result, this division between cognitive and the social gets in the way not only of theoretical studies, but also in practical applications such as policy making. For example, interventions aimed at encouraging vaccination (such as compulsory vaccination) may reinforce the (social) identity of the vaccine hesitant. However, this risk and its possible consequences for society cannot be properly understood without a clear grasp of the dynamic evolution of social identity.

Computational models and systems provide a way of trying to understand the cognitive and the social together. For computational modellers, there is no particular reason to confine themselves to only the cognitive or only the social because agent-based systems can include both within a single framework. In addition, the computational system is a dynamic model that can represent the interactions of the individuals that connect the cognitive models and the social models. Thus the fact that computational models have a natural way to represent the actions as an integral and defining part of the socio-cognitive system is of prime importance. Given that the actions are an integral part of the model it is well suited to model the dynamics of socio-cognitive systems and track changes at both the social and the cognitive level. Therefore, within such systems we can study how cognitive processes may act to produce social phenomena whilst, at the same time, as how social realities are shaping the cognitive processes. Caarley and Newell (1994) discusses what is necessary at the agent level for sociality, Hofested et al. (2021) talk about how to understand sociality using computational models (including theories of individual action) – we want to understand both together. Thus, we can model the social embeddedness that Granovetter (1985) talked about – going beyond over- or under-socialised representations of human behaviour. It is not that computational models are innately suitable for modelling either the cognitive or the social, but that they can be appropriately structured (e.g. sets of interacting parts bridging micro-, meso- and macro-levels) and include arbitrary levels of complexity. Lots of models that represent the social have entities that stand for the cognitive, but do not explicitly represent much of that detail – similarly much cognitive modelling implies the social in terms of the stimuli and responses of an individual that would be to other social entities, but where these other entities are not explicitly represented or are simplified away.

Socio-Cognitive Systems (SCS) are: those models and systems where both cognitive and social complexity are represented with a meaningful level of processual detail.

A good example of an application where this appeared of the biggest importance was in simulations for the covid-19 crisis. The spread of the corona virus on macro level could be given by an epidemiological model, but the actual spreading depended crucially on the human behaviour that resulted from individuals’ cognitive model of the situation. In Dignum (2021) it was shown how the socio-cognitive system approach was fundamental to obtaining better insights in the effectiveness of a range of covid-19 restrictions.

Formality here is important. Computational systems are formal in the sense that they can be unambiguously passed around (i.e. unlike language, it is not differently re-interpreted by each individual) and operate according to their own precisely specified and explicit rules. This means that the same system can be examined and experimented on by a wider community of researchers. Sometimes, even when the researchers from different fields find it difficult to talk to one another, they can fruitfully cooperate via a computational model (e.g. Lafuerza et al. 2016). Other kinds of formal systems (e.g. logic, maths) are geared towards models that describe an entire system from a birds eye view. Although there are some exceptions like fibred logics Gabbay (1996), these are too abstract to be of good use to model practical situations. The lack of modularity and has been addressed in context logics Giunchiglia, F., & Ghidini, C. (1998). However, the contexts used in this setting are not suitable to generate a more general societal model. It results in most typical mathematical models using a number of agents which is either one, two or infinite (Miller and Page 2007), while important social phenomena happen with a “medium sized” population. What all these formalisms miss is a natural way of specifying the dynamics of the system that is modelled, while having ways to modularly describe individuals and the society resulting from their interactions. Thus, although much of what is represented in Socio-Cognitive Systems is not computational, the lingua franca for talking about them is.

The ‘double complexity’ of combining the cognitive and the social in the same system will bring its own methodological challenges. Such complexity will mean that many socio-cognitive systems will be, themselves, hard to understand or analyse. In the covid-19 simulations, described in (Dignum 2021), a large part of the work consisted of analysing, combining and representing the results in ways that were understandable. As an example, for one scenario 79 pages of graphs were produced showing different relations between potentially relevant variables. New tools and approaches will need to be developed to deal with this. We only have some hints of these, but it seems likely that secondary stages of analysis – understanding the models – will be necessary, resulting in a staged approach to abstraction (Lafuerza et al. 2016). In other words, we will need to model the socio-cognitive systems, maybe in terms of further (but simpler) socio-cognitive systems, but also maybe with a variety of other tools. We do not have a view on this further analysis, but this could include: machine learning, mathematics, logic, network analysis, statistics, and even qualitative approaches such as discourse analysis.

An interesting input for the methodology of designing and analysing socio-cognitive systems is anthropology and specifically ethnographical methods. Again, for the covid-19 simulations the first layer of the simulation was constructed based on “normal day life patterns”. Different types of persons were distinguished that each have their own pattern of living. These patterns interlock and form a fabric of social interactions that overall should satisfy most of the needs of the agents. Thus we calibrate the simulation based on the stories of types of people and their behaviours. Note that doing the same just based on available data of behaviour would not account for the underlying needs and motives of that behaviour and would not be a good basis for simulating changes. The stories that we used looked very similar to the type of reports ethnographers produce about certain communities. Thus further investigating this connection seems worthwhile.

For representing the output of the complex socio-cognitive systems we can also use the analogue of stories. Basically, different stories show the underlying (assumed) causal relations between phenomena that are observed. E.g. seeing an increase in people having lunch with friends can be explained by the fact that a curfew prevents people having dinner with their friends, while they still have a need to socialize. Thus the alternative of going for lunch is chosen more often. One can see that the explaining story uses both social as well as cognitive elements to describe the results. Although in the covid-19 simulations we have created a number of these stories, they were all created by hand after (sometimes weeks) of careful analysis of the results. Thus for this kind of approach to be viable, new tools are required.

Although human society is the archetypal socio-cognitive system, it is not the only one. Both social animals and some artificial systems also come under this category. These may be very different from the human, and in the case of artificial systems completely different. Thus, Socio-Cognitive Systems is not limited to the discussion of observable phenomena, but can include constructed or evolved computational systems, and artificial societies. Examination of these (either theoretically or experimentally) opens up the possibility of finding either contrasts or commonalities between such systems – beyond what happens to exist in the natural world. However, we expect that ideas and theories that were conceived with human socio-cognitive systems in mind might often be an accessible starting point for understanding these other possibilities.

In a way, Socio-Cognitive Systems bring together two different threads in the work of Herbert Simon. Firstly, as in Simon (1948) it seeks to take seriously the complexity of human social behaviour without reducing this to overly simplistic theories of individual behaviour. Secondly, it adopts the approach of explicitly modelling the cognitive in computational models (Newell & Simon 1972). Simon did not bring these together in his lifetime, perhaps due to the limitations and difficulty of deploying the computational tools to do so. Instead, he tried to develop alternative mathematical models of aspects of thought (Simon 1957). However, those models were limited by being mathematical rather than computational.

To conclude, a field of Socio-Cognitive Systems would consider the cognitive and the social in an integrated fashion – understanding them together. We suggest that computational representation or implementation might be necessary to provide concrete reference between the various disciplines that are needed to understand them. We want to encourage research that considers the cognitive and the social in a truly integrated fashion. If by labelling a new field does this it will have achieved its purpose. However, there is the possibility that completely new classes of theory and complexity may be out there to be discovered – phenomena that are denied if either the cognitive or the social are not taken together – a new world of a socio-cognitive systems.

Notes

[1] Some economic models claim to bridge between individual behaviour and macro outcomes, however this is traditionally notional. Many economists admit that their primary cognitive models (varieties of economic rationality) are not valid for individuals but are what people on average do – i.e. this is a macro-level model. In other economic models whole populations are formalised using a single representative agent. Recently, there are some agent-based economic models emerging, but often limited to agree with traditional models.

Acknowledgements

Bruce Edmonds is supported as part of the ESRC-funded, UK part of the “ToRealSim” project, grant number ES/S015159/1.

References

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Kuhn, T,S, (1962) The structure of scientific revolutions. University of Chicago Press, Chicago

Lafuerza L.F., Dyson L., Edmonds B., McKane A.J. (2016) Staged Models for Interdisciplinary Research. PLoS ONE 11(6): e0157261, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0157261

Miller, J. H., Page, S. E., & Page, S. (2009). Complex adaptive systems. Princeton university press.

Newell A, Simon H.A. (1972) Human problem solving. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ

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Dignum, F., Edmonds, B. and Carpentras, D. (2022) Socio-Cognitive Systems – A Position Statement. Review of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 2nd Apr 2022. https://rofasss.org/2022/04/02/scs


 

The Poverty of Suggestivism – the dangers of “suggests that” modelling

By Bruce Edmonds

Vagueness and refutation

A model[1] is basically composed of two parts (Zeigler 1976, Wartofsky 1979):

  1. A set of entities (such as mathematical equations, logical rules, computer code etc.) which can be used to make some inferences as to the consequences of that set (usually in conjunction with some data and parameter values)
  2. A mapping from this set to what it aims to represent – what the bits mean

Whilst a lot of attention has been paid to the internal rigour of the set of entities and the inferences that are made from them (1), the mapping to what that represents (2) has often been left as implicit or incompletely described – sometimes only indicated by the labels given to its parts. The result is a model that vaguely relates to its target, suggesting its properties analogically. There is not a well-defined way that the model is to be applied to anything observed, but a new map is invented each time it is used to think about a particular case. I call this way of modelling “Suggestivism”, because the model “suggests” things about what is being modelled.

This is partly a recapitulation of Popper’s critique of vague theories in his book “The Poverty of Historicism” (1957). He characterised such theories as “irrefutable”, because whatever the facts, these theories could be made to fit them. Irrefutability is an indicator of a lack of precise mapping to reality – such vagueness makes refutation very hard. However, it is only an indicator; there may be other reasons than vagueness for it not being possible to test a theory – it is their disconnection from well-defined empirical reference that is the issue here.

Some might go as far as suggesting that any model or theory that is not refutable is “unscientific”, but this goes too far, implying a very restricted definition of what ‘science’ is. We need analogies to think about what we are doing and to gain insight into what we are studying, e.g. (Hartman 1997) – for humans they are unavoidable, ‘baked’ into the way language works (Lakoff 1987). A model might make a set of ideas clear and help map out the consequences of a set of assumptions/structures/processes. Many of these suggestivist models relate to a set of ideas and it is the ideas that relate to what is observed (albeit informally) (Edmonds 2001). However, such models do not capture anything reliable about what they refer to, and in that sense are not part of the set of the established statements and theories that is at the core of science  (Arnold 2014).

The dangers of suggestivist modelling

As above, there are valid uses of abstract or theoretical modelling where this is explicitly acknowledged and where no conclusions about observed phenomena are made. So what are the dangers of suggestivist modelling – why am I making such a fuss about it?

Firstly, that people often seem to confuse a model as an analogy – a way of thinking about stuff – and a model that tells us reliably about what we are studying. Thus they give undue weight to the analyses of abstract models that are, in fact, just thought experiments. Making models is a very intimate way of theorising – one spends an extended period of time interacting with one’s model: developing, checking, analysing etc. The result is a particularly strong version of “Kuhnian Spectacles” (Kuhn 1962) causing us to see the world though our model for weeks after. Under this strong influence it is natural to confuse what we can reliably infer about the world and how we are currently perceiving/thinking about it. Good scientists should then pause and wait for this effect to wear off so that they can effectively critique what they have done, its limitations and what its implications are. However, often in the rush to get their work out, modellers often do not do this, resulting in a sloppy set of suggestive interpretations of their modelling.

Secondly, empirical modelling is hard. It is far easier (and, frankly, more fun) to play with non-empirical models. A scientific culture that treats suggestivist modelling as substantial progress and significantly rewards modellers that do it, will effectively divert a lot of modelling effort in this direction. Chattoe-Brown (2018) displayed evidence of this in his survey of opinion dynamics models – abstract, suggestivist modelling got far more reward (in terms of citations) than those that tried to relate their model to empirical data in a direct manner. Abstract modelling has a role in science, but if it is easier and more rewarding then the field will become unbalanced. It may give the impression of progress but not deliver on this impression. In a more mature science, researchers working on measurement methods (steps from observation to models) and collecting good data are as important as the theorists (Moss 1998).

Thirdly, it is hard to judge suggestivist models. Given their connection to the modelling target is vague there cannot be any decisive test of its success. Good modellers should declare the exact purpose of their model, e.g. that is analogical or merely exploring the consequences of theory (Edmonds et al. 2019), but then accept the consequences of this choice – namely, that it excludes  making conclusions about the observed world. If it is for a theoretical exploration then the comprehensiveness of the exploration, the scope of the exploration and the applicability of the model can be judged, but if the model is analogical or illustrative then this is harder. Whilst one model may suggest X, another may suggest the opposite. It is quite easy to fix a model to get the outcomes one wants. Clearly, if a model makes startling suggestions – illustrating totally new ideas or making a counter-example to widely held assumptions – then this helps science by widening the pool of theories or hypotheses that are considered. However most suggestivist modelling does not do this.

Fourthly, their sheer flexibility of as to application causes problems – if one works hard enough one can invent mappings to a wide range of cases, the limits are only those of our imagination. In effect, having a vague mapping from model to what it models adds in huge flexibility in a similar way to having a large number of free (non-empirical) parameters. This flexibility gives an impression of generality, and many desire simple and general models for complex phenomena. However, this is illusory because a different mapping is needed for each case, to make it apply. Given the above (1)+(2) definition of a model this means that, in fact, it is a different model for each case – what a model refers to, is part of the model. The same flexibility makes such models impossible to refute, since one can just adjust the mapping to save them. The apparent generality and lack of refutation means that such models hang around in the literature, due to their surface attractiveness.

Finally, these kinds of model are hugely influential beyond the community of modellers to the wider public including policy actors. Narratives that start in abstract models make their way out and can be very influential (Vranckx 1999). Despite the lack of rigorous mapping from model to reality, suggestivist models look impressive, look scientific. For example, very abstract models from the Neo-Classical ‘Chicago School’ of economists supported narratives about the optimal efficiency of markets, leading to a reluctance to regulate them (Krugman 2009). A lack of regulation seemed to be one of the factors behind the 2007/8 economic crash (Baily et al 2008). Modellers may understand that other modellers get over-enthusiastic and over-interpret their models, but others may not. It is the duty of modellers to give an accurate impression of the reliability of any modelling results and not to over-hype them.

How to recognise a suggestivist model

It can be hard to detangle how empirically vague a model is, because many descriptions about modelling work do not focus on making the mapping to what it represents precise. The reasons for this are various, for example: the modeller might be conflating reality and what is in the model in their minds, the researcher is new to modelling and has not really decided what the purpose of their model is, the modeller might be over-keen to establish the importance of their work and so is hyping the motivation and conclusions, they might simply not got around to thinking enough about the relationship between their model and what it might represent, or they might not have bothered to make the relationship explicit in their description. Whatever the reason the reader of any description of such work is often left with an archaeological problem: trying to unearth what the relationship might be, based on indirect clues only. The only way to know for certain is to take a case one knows about and try and apply the model to it, but this is a time consuming process and relies upon having a case with suitable data available. However, there are some indicators, albeit fallible ones, including the following.

  • A relatively simple model is interpreted as explaining a wide range of observed, complex phenomena
  • No data from an observed case study is compared to data from the model (often no data is brought in at all, merely abstract observations) – despite this, conclusions about some observed phenomena are made
  • The purpose of the model is not explicitly declared
  • The language of the paper seems to conflate talking about the model with what is being modelled
  • In the paper there are sudden abstraction ‘jumps’ between the motivation and the description of the model and back again to the interpretation of the results in terms of that motivation. The abstraction jumps involved are large and justified by some a priori theory or modelling precedents rather than evidence.

How to avoid suggestivist modelling

How to avoid the dangers of suggestivist modelling should be clear from the above discussion, but I will make them explicit here.

  • Be clear about the model purpose – that is does the model aim to achieve, which indicates how it should be judged by others (Edmonds et al 2019)
  • Do not make any conclusions about the real world if you have not related the model to any data
  • Do not make any policy conclusions – things that might affect other people’s lives – without at least some independent validation of the model outcomes
  • Document how a model relates (or should relate) to data, the nature of that data and maybe even the process whereby that data should be obtained (Achter et al 2019)
  • Be explicit as possible about what kinds of phenomena the model applies to – the limits of its scope
  • Keep the language about the model and what is being modelled distinct – for any statement it should be clear whether it is talking about the model or what it models (Edmonds 2020)
  • Highlight any bold assumptions in the specification of the model or describe what empirical foundation there is for them – be honest about these

Conclusion

Models can serve many different purposes (Epstein 2008). This is fine as long as the purpose of models are always made clear, and model results are not interpreted further than their established purpose allows. Research which gives the impression that analogical, illustrative or theoretical modelling can tell us anything reliable about observed complex phenomena is not only sloppy science, but can have a deleterious impact – giving an impression of progress whilst diverting attention from empirically reliable work. Like a bad investment: if it looks too good and too easy to be true, it probably isn’t.

Notes

[1] We often use the word “model” in a lazy way to indicate (1) rather than (1)+(2) in this definition, but a set of entities without any meaning or mapping to anything else is not a model, as it does not represent anything. For example, a random set of equations or program instructions does not make a model.

Acknowledgements

Bruce Edmonds is supported as part of the ESRC-funded, UK part of the “ToRealSim” project, grant number ES/S015159/1.

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Edmonds, B. (2022) The Poverty of Suggestivism – the dangers of "suggests that" modelling. Review of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 28th Feb 2022. https://rofasss.org/2022/02/28/poverty-suggestivism


 

Where Now For Experiments In Agent-Based Modelling? Report of a Round Table at SSC2021, held on 22 September 2021


By Dino Carpentras1, Edmund Chattoe-Brown2*, Bruce Edmonds3, Cesar García-Diaz4, Christian Kammler5, Anna Pagani6 and Nanda Wijermans7

*Corresponding author, 1Centre for Social Issues Research, University of Limerick, 2School of Media, Communication and Sociology, University of Leicester, 3Centre for Policy Modelling, Manchester Metropolitan University, 4Department of Business Administration, Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, 5Department of Computing Science, Umeå University, 6Laboratory on Human-Environment Relations in Urban Systems (HERUS), École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), 7Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University.

Introduction

This round table was convened to advance and improve the use of experimental methods in Agent-Based Modelling, in the hope that both existing and potential users of the method would be able to identify steps towards this aim[i]. The session began with a presentation by Bruce Edmonds (http://cfpm.org/slides/experiments%20and%20ABM.pptx) whose main argument was that the traditional idea of experimentation (controlling extensively for the environment and manipulating variables) was too simplistic to add much to the understanding of the sort of complex systems modelled by ABMs and that we should therefore aim to enhance experiments (for example using richer experimental settings, richer measures of those settings and richer data – like discussions between participants as well as their behaviour). What follows is a summary of the main ideas discussed organised into themed sections.

What Experiments Are

Defining the field of experiments proved to be challenging on two counts. The first was that there are a number of labels for potentially relevant approaches (experiments themselves – for example, Boero et al. 2010, gaming – for example, Tykhonov et al. 2008, serious games – for example Taillandier et al. 2019, companion/participatory modelling – for example, Ramanath and Gilbert 2004 and web based gaming – for example, Basole et al. 2013) whose actual content overlap is unclear. Is it the case that a gaming approach is generally more in line with the argument proposed by Edmonds? How can we systematically distinguish the experimental content of a serious game approach from a gaming approach? This seems to be a problem in immature fields where the labels are invented first (often on the basis of a few rather divergent instances) and the methodology has to grow into them. It would be ludicrous if we couldn’t be sure whether a piece of research was survey based or interview based (and this would radically devalue the associated labels if it were so.)

The second challenge is also more general in Agent-Based Modelling which is the same labels being used differently by different researchers. It is not productive to argue about which uses are correct but it is important that the concepts behind the different uses are clear so a common scheme of labelling might ultimately be agreed. So, for example, experiment can be used (and different round table participants had different perspectives on the uses they expected) to mean laboratory experiments (simplified settings with human subjects – again see, for example, Boero et al. 2010), experiments with ABMs (formal experimentation with a model that doesn’t necessarily have any empirical content – for example, Doran 1998) and natural experiments (choice of cases in the real world to, for example, test a theory – see Dinesen 2013).

One approach that may help with this diversity is to start developing possible dimensions of experimentation. One might be degree of control (all the way from very stripped down behavioural laboratory experiments to natural situations where the only control is to select the cases). Another might be data diversity: From pure analysis of ABMs (which need not involve data at all), through laboratory experiments that record only behaviour to ethnographic collection and analysis of diverse data in rich experiments (like companion modelling exercises.) But it is important for progress that the field develops robust concepts that allow meaningful distinctions and does not get distracted into pointless arguments about labelling. Furthermore, we must consider the possible scientific implications of experimentation carried out at different points in the dimension space: For example, what are the relative strengths and limitations of experiments that are more or less controlled or more or less data diverse? Is there a “sweet spot” where the benefit of experiments is greatest to Agent-Based Modelling? If so, what is it and why?

The Philosophy of Experiment

The second challenge is the different beliefs (often associated with different disciplines) about the philosophical underpinnings of experiment such as what we might mean by a cause. In an economic experiment, for example, the objective may be to confirm a universal theory of decision making through displayed behaviour only. (It is decisions described by this theory which are presumed to cause the pattern of observed behaviour.) This will probably not allow the researcher to discover that their basic theory is wrong (people are adaptive not rational after all) or not universal (agents have diverse strategies), or that some respondents simply didn’t understand the experiment (deviations caused by these phenomena may be labelled noise relative to the theory being tested but in fact they are not.)

By contrast qualitative sociologists believe that subjective accounts (including accounts of participation in the experiment itself) can be made reliable and that they may offer direct accounts of certain kinds of cause: If I say I did something for a certain reason then it is at least possible that I actually did (and that the reason I did it is therefore its cause). It is no more likely that agreement will be reached on these matters in the context of experiments than it has been elsewhere. But Agent-Based Modelling should keep its reputation for open mindedness by seeing what happens when qualitative data is also collected and not just rejecting that approach out of hand as something that is “not done”. There is no need for Agent-Based Modelling blindly to follow the methodology of any one existing discipline in which experiments are conducted (and these disciplines often disagree vigorously on issues like payment and deception with no evidence on either side which should also make us cautious about their self-evident correctness.)

Finally, there is a further complication in understanding experiments using analogies with the physical sciences. In understanding the evolution of a river system, for example, one can control/intervene, one can base theories on testable micro mechanisms (like percolation) and one can observe. But there is no equivalent to asking the river what it intends (whether we can do this effectively in social science or not).[ii] It is not totally clear how different kinds of data collection like these might relate to each other in the social sciences, for example, data from subjective accounts, behavioural experiments (which may show different things from what respondents claim) and, for example, brain scans (which side step the social altogether.) This relationship between different kinds of data currently seems incompletely explored and conceptualised. (There is a tendency just to look at easy cases like surveys versus interviews.)

The Challenge of Experiments as Practical Research

This is an important area where the actual and potential users of experiments participating in the round table diverged. Potential users wanted clear guidance on the resources, skills and practices involved in doing experimental work (and see similar issues in the behavioural strategy literature, for example, Reypens and Levine 2018). At the most basic level, when does a researcher need to do an experiment (rather than a survey, interviews or observation), what are the resource requirements in terms of time, facilities and money (laboratory experiments are unusual in often needing specific funding to pay respondents rather than substituting the researcher working for free) what design decisions need to be made (paying subjects, online or offline, can subjects be deceived?), how should the data be analysed (how should an ABM be validated against experimental data?) and so on.[iii] (There are also pros and cons to specific bits of potentially supporting technology like Amazon Mechanical Turk, Qualtrics and Prolific, which have not yet been documented and systematically compared for the novice with a background in Agent-Based Modelling.) There is much discussion about these matters in the traditional literatures of social sciences that do experiments (see, for example, Kagel and Roth 1995, Levine and Parkinson 1994 and Zelditch 2014) but this has not been summarised and tuned specifically for the needs of Agent-Based Modellers (or published where they are likely to see it).

However, it should not be forgotten that not all research efforts need this integration within the same project, so thinking about the problems that really need it is critical. Nonetheless, triangulation is indeed necessary within research programmes. For instance, in subfields such as strategic management and organisational design, it is uncommon to see an ABM integrated with an experiment as part of the same project (though there are exceptions, such as Vuculescu 2017). Instead, ABMs are typically used to explore “what if” scenarios, build process theories and illuminate potential empirical studies. In this approach, knowledge is accumulated instead through the triangulation of different methodologies in different projects (see Burton and Obel 2018). Additionally, modelling and experimental efforts are usually led by different specialists – for example, there is a Theoretical Organisational Models Society whose focus is the development of standards for theoretical organisation science.

In a relatively new and small area, all we often have is some examples of good practice (or more contentiously bad practice) of which not everyone is even aware. A preliminary step is thus to see to what extent people know of good practice and are able to agree that it is good (and perhaps why it is good).

Finally, there was a slightly separate discussion about the perspectives of experimental participants themselves. It may be that a general problem with unreal activity is that you know it is unreal (which may lead to problems with ecological validity – Bornstein 1999.) On the other hand, building on the enrichment argument put forward by Edmonds (above), there is at least anecdotal observational evidence that richer and more realistic settings may cause people to get “caught up” and perhaps participate more as they would in reality. Nonetheless, there are practical steps we can take to learn more about these phenomena by augmenting experimental designs. For example we might conduct interviews (or even group discussions) before and after experiments. This could make the initial biases of participants explicit and allow them to self-evaluate retrospectively the extent to which they got engaged (or perhaps even over-engaged) during the game. The first such questionnaire could be available before attending the experiment, whilst another could be administered right after the game (and perhaps even a third a week later). In addition to practical design solutions, there are also relevant existing literatures that experimental researchers should probably draw on in this area, for example that on systemic design and the associated concept of worldviews. But it is fair to say that we do not yet fully understand the issues here but that they clearly matter to the value of experimental data for Agent-Based Modelling.[iv]

Design of Experiments

Something that came across strongly in the round table discussion as argued by existing users of experimental methods was the desirability of either designing experiments directly based on a specific ABM structure (rather than trying to use a stripped down – purely behavioural – experiment) or mixing real and simulated participants in richer experimental settings. In line with the enrichment argument put forward by Edmonds, nobody seemed to be using stripped down experiments to specify, calibrate or validate ABM elements piecemeal. In the examples provided by round table participants, experiments corresponding closely to the ABM (and mixing real and simulated participants) seemed particularly valuable in tackling subjects that existing theory had not yet really nailed down or where it was clear that very little of the data needed for a particular ABM was available. But there was no sense that there is a clearly defined set of research designs with associated purposes on which the potential user can draw. (The possible role of experiments in supporting policy was also mentioned but no conclusions were drawn.)

Extracting Rich Data from Experiments

Traditional experiments are time consuming to do, so they are frequently optimised to obtain the maximum power and discrimination between factors of interest. In such situations they will often limit their data collection to what is strictly necessary for testing their hypotheses. Furthermore, it seems to be a hangover from behaviourist psychology that one does not use self-reporting on the grounds that it might be biased or simply involve false reconstruction (rationalisation). From the point of view of building or assessing ABMs this approach involves a wasted opportunity. Due to the flexible nature of ABMs there is a need for as many empirical constraints upon modelling as possible. These constraints can come from theory, evidence or abstract principles (such as simplicity) but should not hinder the design of an ABM but rather act as a check on its outcomes. Game-like situations can provide rich data about what is happening, simultaneously capturing decisions on action, the position and state of players, global game outcomes/scores and what players say to each other (see, for example, Janssen et al. 2010, Lindahl et al. 2021). Often, in social science one might have a survey with one set of participants, interviews with others and longitudinal data from yet others – even if these, in fact, involve the same people, the data will usually not indicate this through consistent IDs. When collecting data from a game (and especially from online games) there is a possibility for collecting linked data with consistent IDs – including interviews – that allows for a whole new level of ABM development and checking.

Standards and Institutional Bootstrapping

This is also a wider problem in newer methods like Agent-Based Modelling. How can we foster agreement about what we are doing (which has to build on clear concepts) and institutionalise those agreements into standards for a field (particularly when there is academic competition and pressure to publish).[v] If certain journals will not publish experiments (or experiments done in certain ways) what can we do about that? JASSS was started because it was so hard to publish ABMs. It has certainly made that easier but is there a cost through less publication in other journals? See, for example, Squazzoni and Casnici (2013). Would it have been better for the rigour and wider acceptance of Agent-Based Modelling if we had met the standards of other fields rather than setting our own? This strategy, harder in the short term, may also have promoted communication and collaboration better in the long term. If reviewing is arbitrary (reviewers do not seem to have a common view of what makes an experiment legitimate) then can that situation be improved (and in particular how do we best go about that with limited resources?) To some extent, normal individualised academic work may achieve progress here (researchers make proposals, dispute and refine them and their resulting quality ensures at least some individualised adoption by other researchers) but there is often an observable gap in performance: Even though most modellers will endorse the value of data for modelling in principle most models are still non-empirical in practice (Angus and Hassani-Mahmooei 2015, Figure 9). The jury is still out on the best way to improve reviewer consistency, use the power of peer review to impose better standards (and thus resolve a collective action problem under academic competition[vi]) and so on but recognising and trying to address these issues is clearly important to the health of experimental methods in Agent-Based Modelling. Since running experiments in association with ABMs is already challenging, adding the problem of arbitrary reviewer standards makes the publication process even harder. This discourages scientists from following this path and therefore retards this kind of research generally. Again, here, useful resources (like the Psychological Science Accelerator, which facilitates greater experimental rigour by various means) were suggested in discussion as raw material for our own improvements to experiments in Agent-Based Modelling.

Another issue with newer methods such as Agent-Based Modelling is the path to legitimation before the wider scientific community. The need to integrate ABMs with experiments does not necessarily imply that the legitimation of the former is achieved by the latter. Experimental economists, for instance, may still argue that (in the investigation of behaviour and its implications for policy issues), experiments and data analysis alone suffice. They may rightly ask: What is the additional usefulness of an ABM? If an ABM always needs to be justified by an experiment and then validated by a statistical model of its output, then the method might not be essential at all. Orthodox economists skip the Agent-Based Modelling part: They build behavioural experiments, gather (rich) data, run econometric models and make predictions, without the need (at least as they see it) to build any computational representation. Of course, the usefulness of models lies in the premise that they may tell us something that experiments alone cannot (see Knudsen et al. 2019). But progress needs to be made in understanding (and perhaps reconciling) these divergent positions. The social simulation community therefore needs to be clearer about exactly what ABMs can contribute beyond the limitations of an experiment, especially when addressing audiences of non-modellers (Ballard et al. 2021). Not only is a model valuable when rigorously validated against data, but also whenever it makes sense of the data in ways that traditional methods cannot.

Where Now?

Researchers usually have more enthusiasm than they have time. In order to make things happen in an academic context it is not enough to have good ideas, people need to sign up and run with them. There are many things that stand a reasonable chance of improving the profile and practice of experiments in Agent-Based Modelling (regular sessions at SSC, systematic reviews, practical guidelines and evaluated case studies, discussion groups, books or journal special issues, training and funding applications that build networks and teams) but to a great extent, what happens will be decided by those who make it happen. The organisers of this round table (Nanda Wijermans and Edmund Chattoe-Brown) are very keen to support and coordinate further activity and this summary of discussions is the first step to promote that. We hope to hear from you.

References

Angus, Simon D. and Hassani-Mahmooei, Behrooz (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), October, article 16, <http://jasss.soc.surrey.ac.uk/18/4/16.html>. doi:10.18564/jasss.2952

Ballard, Timothy, Palada, Hector, Griffin, Mark and Neal, Andrew (2021) ‘An Integrated Approach to Testing Dynamic, Multilevel Theory: Using Computational Models to Connect Theory, Model, and Data’, Organizational Research Methods, 24(2), April, pp. 251-284. doi: 10.1177/1094428119881209

Basole, Rahul C., Bodner, Douglas A. and Rouse, William B. (2013) ‘Healthcare Management Through Organizational Simulation’, Decision Support Systems, 55(2), May, pp. 552-563. doi:10.1016/j.dss.2012.10.012

Boero, Riccardo, Bravo, Giangiacomo, Castellani, Marco and Squazzoni, Flaminio (2010) ‘Why Bother with What Others Tell You? An Experimental Data-Driven Agent-Based Model’, Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 13(3), June, article 6, <https://www.jasss.org/13/3/6.html>. doi:10.18564/jasss.1620

Bornstein, Brian H. (1999) ‘The Ecological Validity of Jury Simulations: Is the Jury Still Out?’ Law and Human Behavior, 23(1), February, pp. 75-91. doi:10.1023/A:1022326807441

Burton, Richard M. and Obel, Børge (2018) ‘The Science of Organizational Design: Fit Between Structure and Coordination’, Journal of Organization Design, 7(1), December, article 5. doi:10.1186/s41469-018-0029-2

Derbyshire, James (2020) ‘Answers to Questions on Uncertainty in Geography: Old Lessons and New Scenario Tools’, Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, 52(4), June, pp. 710-727. doi:10.1177/0308518X19877885

Dinesen, Peter Thisted (2013) ‘Where You Come From or Where You Live? Examining the Cultural and Institutional Explanation of Generalized Trust Using Migration as a Natural Experiment’, European Sociological Review, 29(1), February, pp. 114-128. doi:10.1093/esr/jcr044

Doran, Jim (1998) ‘Simulating Collective Misbelief’, Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 1(1), January, article 1, <https://www.jasss.org/1/1/3.html>.

Janssen, Marco A., Holahan, Robert, Lee, Allen and Ostrom, Elinor (2010) ‘Lab Experiments for the Study of Social-Ecological Systems’, Science, 328(5978), 30 April, pp. 613-617. doi:10.1126/science.1183532

Kagel, John H. and Roth, Alvin E. (eds.) (1995) The Handbook of Experimental Economics (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press).

Knudsen, Thorbjørn, Levinthal, Daniel A. and Puranam, Phanish (2019) ‘Editorial: A Model is a Model’, Strategy Science, 4(1), March, pp. 1-3. doi:10.1287/stsc.2019.0077

Levine, Gustav and Parkinson, Stanley (1994) Experimental Methods in Psychology (Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates).

Lindahl, Therese, Janssen, Marco A. and Schill, Caroline (2021) ‘Controlled Behavioural Experiments’, in Biggs, Reinette, de Vos, Alta, Preiser, Rika, Clements, Hayley, Maciejewski, Kristine and Schlüter, Maja (eds.) The Routledge Handbook of Research Methods for Social-Ecological Systems (London: Routledge), pp. 295-306. doi:10.4324/9781003021339-25

Ramanath, Ana Maria and Gilbert, Nigel (2004) ‘The Design of Participatory Agent-Based Social Simulations’, Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 7(4), October, article 1, <https://www.jasss.org/7/4/1.html>.

Reypens, Charlotte and Levine, Sheen S. (2018) ‘Behavior in Behavioral Strategy: Capturing, Measuring, Analyzing’, in Behavioral Strategy in Perspective, Advances in Strategic Management Volume 39 (Bingley: Emerald Publishing), pp. 221-246. doi:10.1108/S0742-332220180000039016

Squazzoni, Flaminio and Casnici, Niccolò (2013) ‘Is Social Simulation a Social Science Outstation? A Bibliometric Analysis of the Impact of JASSS’, Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 16(1), January, article 10, <http://jasss.soc.surrey.ac.uk/16/1/10.html>. doi:10.18564/jasss.2192

Taillandier, Patrick, Grignard, Arnaud, Marilleau, Nicolas, Philippon, Damien, Huynh, Quang-Nghi, Gaudou, Benoit and Drogoul, Alexis (2019) ‘Participatory Modeling and Simulation with the GAMA Platform’, Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 22(2), March, article 3, <https://www.jasss.org/22/2/3.html>. doi:10.18564/jasss.3964

Tykhonov, Dmytro, Jonker, Catholijn, Meijer, Sebastiaan and Verwaart, Tim (2008) ‘Agent-Based Simulation of the Trust and Tracing Game for Supply Chains and Networks’, Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 11(3), June, article 1, <https://www.jasss.org/11/3/1.html>.

Vuculescu, Oana (2017) ‘Searching Far Away from the Lamp-Post: An Agent-Based Model’, Strategic Organization, 15(2), May, pp. 242-263. doi:10.1177/1476127016669869

Zelditch, Morris Junior (2007) ‘Laboratory Experiments in Sociology’, in Webster, Murray Junior and Sell, Jane (eds.) Laboratory Experiments in the Social Sciences (New York, NY: Elsevier), pp. 183-197.


Notes

[i] This event was organised (and the resulting article was written) as part of “Towards Realistic Computational Models of Social Influence Dynamics” a project funded through ESRC (ES/S015159/1) by ORA Round 5 and involving Bruce Edmonds (PI) and Edmund Chattoe-Brown (CoI). More about SSC2021 (Social Simulation Conference 2021) can be found at https://ssc2021.uek.krakow.pl

[ii] This issue is actually very challenging for social science more generally. When considering interventions in social systems, knowing and acting might be so deeply intertwined (Derbyshire 2020) that interventions may modify the same behaviours that an experiment is aiming to understand.

[iii] In addition, experiments often require institutional ethics approval (but so do interviews, gaming activities and others sort of empirical research of course), something with which non-empirical Agent-Based Modellers may have little experience.

[iv] Chattoe-Brown had interesting personal experience of this. He took part in a simple team gaming exercise about running a computer firm. The team quickly worked out that the game assumed an infinite return to advertising (so you could have a computer magazine consisting entirely of adverts) independent of the actual quality of the product. They thus simultaneously performed very well in the game from the perspective of an external observer but remained deeply sceptical that this was a good lesson to impart about running an actual firm. But since the coordinators never asked the team members for their subjective view, they may have assumed that the simulation was also a success in its didactic mission.

[v] We should also not assume it is best to set our own standards from scratch. It may be valuable to attempt integration with existing approaches, like qualitative validity (https://conjointly.com/kb/qualitative-validity/) particularly when these are already attempting to be multidisciplinary and/or to bridge the gap between, for example, qualitative and quantitative data.

[vi] Although journals also face such a collective action problem at a different level. If they are too exacting relative to their status and existing practice, researchers will simply publish elsewhere.


Dino Carpentras, Edmund Chattoe-Brown, Bruce Edmonds, Cesar García-Diaz, Christian Kammler, Anna Pagani and Nanda Wijermans (2020) Where Now For Experiments In Agent-Based Modelling? Report of a Round Table as Part of SSC2021. Review of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 2nd Novermber 2021. https://rofasss.org/2021/11/02/round-table-ssc2021-experiments/


The Systematic Comparison of Agent-Based Policy Models – It’s time we got our act together!

By Mike Bithell and Bruce Edmonds

Model Intercomparison

The recent Covid crisis has led to a surge of new model development and a renewed interest in the use of models as policy tools. While this is in some senses welcome, the sudden appearance of many new models presents a problem in terms of their assessment, the appropriateness of their application and reconciling any differences in outcome. Even if they appear similar, their underlying assumptions may differ, their initial data might not be the same, policy options may be applied in different ways, stochastic effects explored to a varying extent, and model outputs presented in any number of different forms. As a result, it can be unclear what aspects of variations in output between models are results of mechanistic, parameter or data differences. Any comparison between models is made tricky by differences in experimental design and selection of output measures.

If we wish to do better, we suggest that a more formal approach to making comparisons between models would be helpful. However, it appears that this is not commonly undertaken most fields in a systematic and persistent way, except for the field of climate change, and closely related fields such as pollution transport or economic impact modelling (although efforts are underway to extend such systematic comparison to ecosystem models –  Wei et al., 2014, Tittensor et al., 2018⁠). Examining the way in which this is done for climate models may therefore prove instructive.

Model Intercomparison Projects (MIP) in the Climate Community

Formal intercomparison of atmospheric models goes back at least to 1989 (Gates et al., 1999)⁠ with the first atmospheric model inter-comparison project (AMIP), initiated by the World Climate Research Programme. By 1999 this had contributions from all significant atmospheric modelling groups, providing standardised time-series of over 30 model variables for one particular historical decade of simulation, with a standard experimental setup. Comparisons of model mean values with available data helped to reveal overall model strengths and weaknesses: no single model was best at simulation of all aspects of the atmosphere, with accuracy varying greatly between simulations. The model outputs also formed a reference base for further inter-comparison experiments including targets for model improvement and reduction of systematic errors, as well as a starting point for improved experimental design, software and data management standards and protocols for communication and model intercomparison. This led to AMIPII and, subsequently, to a series of Climate model inter-comparison projects (CMIP) beginning with CMIP I in 1996. The latest iteration (CMIP 6) is a collection of 23 separate model intercomparison experiments covering atmosphere, ocean, land surface, geo-engineering, and the paleoclimate. This collection is aimed at the upcoming 2021 IPCC process (AR6). Participating projects go through an endorsement process for inclusion, (a process agreed with modelling groups), based on 10 criteria designed to ensure some degree of coherence between the various models – a further 18 MIPS are also listed as currently active (https://www.wcrp-climate.org/wgcm-cmip/wgcm-cmip6). Groups contribute to a central set of common experiments covering the period 1850 to the near-present. An overview of the whole process can be found in (Eyring et al., 2016).

The current structure includes a set of three overarching questions covering the dynamics of the earth system, model systematic biases and understanding possible future change under uncertainty. Individual MIPS may build on this to address one or more of a set of 7 “grand science challenges” associated with the climate. Modelling groups agree to provide outputs in a standard form, obtained from a specified set of experiments under the same design, and to provide standardised documentation to go with their models. Originally (up to CMIP 5), outputs were then added to a central public repository for further analysis, however the output grew so large under CMIP6 that now the data is held dispersed over repositories maintained by separate groups.

Other Examples

Two further more recent examples of collective model  development may also be helpful to consider.

Firstly, an informal network collating models across more than 50 research groups has already been generated as a result of the COVID crisis –  the Covid Forecast Hub (https://covid19forecasthub.org). This is run by a small number of research groups collaborating with the US Centre for Disease Control and is strongly focussed on the epidemiology. Participants are encouraged to submit weekly forecasts, and these are integrated into a data repository and can be vizualized on the website – viewers can look at forward projections, along with associated confidence intervals and model evaluation scores, including those for an ensemble of all models. The focus on forecasts in this case arises out of the strong policy drivers for the current crisis, but the main point is that it is possible to immediately view measures of model performance and to compare the different model types: one clear message that rapidly becomes apparent is that many of the forward projections have 95% (and at some times, even 50%) confidence intervals for incident deaths that more than span the full range of the past historic data. The benefit of comparing many different models in this case is apparent, as many of the historic single-model projections diverge strongly from the data (and the models most in error are not consistently the same ones over time), although the ensemble mean tends to be better.

As a second example, one could consider the Psychological Science Accelerator (PSA: Moshontz et al 2018, https://psysciacc.org/). This is a collaborative network set up with the aim of addressing the “replication crisis” in psychology: many previously published results in psychology have proved problematic to replicate as a result of small or non-representative sampling or use of experimental designs that do not generalize well or have not been used consistently either within or across studies. The PSA seeks to ensure accumulation of reliable and generalizable evidence in psychological science, based on principles of inclusion, decentralization, openness, transparency and rigour. The existence of this network has, for example, enabled the reinvestigation of previous  experiments but with much larger and less nationally biased samples (e.g. Jones et al 2021).

The Benefits of the Intercomparison Exercises and Collaborative Model Building

More specifically, long-term intercomparison projects help to do the following.

  • Build on past effort. Rather than modellers re-inventing the wheel (or building a new framework) with each new model project, libraries of well-tested and documented models, with data archives, including code and experimental design, would allow researchers to more efficiently work on new problems, building on previous coding effort
  • Aid replication. Focussed long term intercomparison projects centred on model results with consistent standardised data formats would allow new versions of code to be quickly tested against historical archives to check whether expected results could be recovered and where differences might arise, particularly if different modelling languages were being used
  • Help to formalize. While informal code archives can help to illustrate the methods or theoretical foundations of a model, intercomparison projects help to understand which kinds of formal model might be good for particular applications, and which can be expected to produce helpful results for given desired output measures
  • Build credibility. A continuously updated set of model implementations and assessment of their areas of competence and lack thereof (as compared with available datasets) would help to demonstrate the usefulness (or otherwise) of ABM as a way to represent social systems
  • Influence Policy (where appropriate). Formal international policy organisations such as the IPCC or the more recently formed IPBES are effective partly through an underpinning of well tested and consistently updated models. As yet it is difficult to see whether such a body would be appropriate or effective for social systems, as we lack the background of demonstrable accumulated and well tested model results.

Lessons for ABM?

What might we be able to learn from the above, if we attempted to use a similar process to compare ABM policy models?

In the first place, the projects started small and grew over time: it would not be necessary, for example, to cover all possible ABM applications at the outset. On the other hand, the latest CMIP iterations include a wide range of different types of model covering many different aspects of the earth system, so that the breadth of possible model types need not be seen as a barrier.

Secondly, the climate inter-comparison project has been persistent for some 30 years – over this time many models have come and gone, but the history of inter-comparisons allows for an overview of how well these models have performed over time – data from the original AMIP I models is still available on request, supporting assessments concerning  long-term model improvement.

Thirdly, although climate models are complex – implementing a variety of different mechanisms in different ways – they can still be compared by use of standardised outputs, and at least some (although not necessarily all) have been capable of direct comparison with empirical data.

Finally, an agreed experimental design and public archive for documentation and output that is stable over time is needed; this needs to be done via a collective agreement among the modelling groups involved so as to ensure a long-term buy-in from the community as a whole, so that there is a consistent basis for long-term model development, building on past experience.

The need for aligning or reproducing ABMs has long been recognised within the community (Axtell et al. 1996; Edmonds & Hales 2003), but on a one-one basis for verifying the specification of models against their implementation, although (Hales et al. 2003) discusses a range of possibilities. However, this is far from a situation where many different models of basically the same phenomena are systematically compared – this would be a larger scale collaboration lasting over a longer time span.

The community has already established a standardised form of documentation in the ODD protocol. Sharing of model code is also becoming routine, and can be easily achieved through COMSES, Github or similar. The sharing of data in a long-term archive may require more investigation. As a starting project COVID-19 provides an ideal opportunity for setting up such a model inter-comparison project – multiple groups already have running examples, and a shared set of outputs and experiments should be straightforward to agree on. This would potentially form a basis for forward looking experiments designed to assist with possible future pandemic problems, and a basis on which to build further features into the existing disease-focussed modelling, such as the effects of economic, social and psychological issues.

Additional Challenges for ABMs of Social Phenomena

Nobody supposes that modelling social phenomena is going to have the same set of challenges that climate change models face. Some of the differences include:

  • The availability of good data. Social science is bedevilled by a paucity of the right kind of data. Although an increasing amount of relevant data is being produced, there are commercial, ethical and data protection barriers to accessing it and the data rarely concerns the same set of actors or events.
  • The understanding of micro-level behaviour. Whilst the micro-level understanding of our atmosphere is very well established, those of the behaviour of the most important actors (humans) is not. However, it may be that better data might partially substitute for a generic behavioural model of decision-making.
  • Agreement upon the goals of modelling. Although there will always be considerable variation in terms of what is wanted from a model of any particular social phenomena, a common core of agreed objectives will help focus any comparison and give confidence via ensembles of projections. Although the MIPs and Covid Forecast Hub are focussed on prediction, it may be that empirical explanation may be more important in other areas.
  • The available resources. ABM projects tend to be add-ons to larger endeavours and based around short-term grant funding. The funding for big ABM projects is yet to be established, not having the equivalent of weather forecasting to piggy-back on.
  • Persistence of modelling teams/projects. ABM tends to be quite short-term with each project developing a new model for a new project. This has made it hard to keep good modelling teams together.
  • Deep uncertainty. Whilst the set of possible factors and processes involved in a climate change model are well established, which social mechanisms need to be involved in any model of any particular social phenomena is unknown. For this reason, there is deep disagreement about the assumptions to be made in such models, as well as sharp divergence in outcome due to changes brought about by a particular mechanism but not included in a model. Whilst uncertainty in known mechanisms can be quantified, assessing the impact of those due to such deep uncertainty is much harder.
  • The sensitivity of the political context. Even in the case of Climate Change, where the assumptions made are relatively well understood and done on objective bases, the modelling exercise and its outcomes can be politically contested. In other areas, where the representation of people’s behaviour might be key to model outcomes, this will need even more care (Adoha & Edmonds 2017).

However, some of these problems were solved in the case of Climate Change as a result of the CMIP exercises and the reports they ultimately resulted in. Over time the development of the models also allowed for a broadening and updating of modelling goals, starting from a relatively narrow initial set of experiments. Ensuring the persistence of individual modelling teams is easier in the context of an internationally recognised comparison project, because resources may be easier to obtain, and there is a consistent central focus. The modelling projects became longer-term as individual researchers could establish a career doing just climate change modelling and importance of the work increasingly recognised. An ABM modelling comparison project might help solve some of these problems as the importance of its work is established.

Towards an Initial Proposal

The topic chosen for this project should be something where there: (a) is enough public interest to justify the effort, (b) there are a number of models with a similar purpose in mind being developed.  At the current stage, this suggests dynamic models of COVID spread, but there are other possibilities, including: transport models (where people go and who they meet) or criminological models (where and when crimes happen).

Whichever ensemble of models is focussed upon, these models should be compared on a core of standard, with the same:

  • Start and end dates (but not necessarily the same temporal granularity)
  • Covering the same set of regions or cases
  • Using the same population data (though possibly enhanced with extra data and maybe scaled population sizes)
  • With the same initial conditions in terms of the population
  • Outputting a core of agreed measures (but maybe others as well)
  • Checked against their agreement against a core set of cases, with agreed data sets
  • Reported on in a standard format (though with a discussion section for further/other observations)
  • well documented and with code that is open access
  • Run a minimum of times with different random seeds

Any modeller/team that had a suitable model and was willing to adhere to the rules would be welcome to participate (commercial, government or academic) and these teams would collectively decide the rules, development and write any reports on the comparisons. Other interested stakeholder groups could be involved including professional/academic associations, NGOs and government departments but in a consultative role providing wider critique – it is important that the terms and reports from the exercise be independent or any particular interest or authority.

Conclusion

We call upon those who think ABMs have the potential to usefully inform policy decisions to work together, in order that the transparency and rigour of our modelling matches our ambition. Whilst model comparison exercises of the kind described are important for any simulation work, particular care needs to be taken when the outcomes can affect people’s lives.

References

Aodha, L. & 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. (A version is at http://cfpm.org/discussionpapers/236)

Axtell, R., Axelrod, R., Epstein, J. M., & Cohen, M. D. (1996). Aligning simulation models: A case study and results. Computational & Mathematical Organization Theory, 1(2), 123-141. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2FBF01299065

Edmonds, B., & Hales, D. (2003). Replication, replication and replication: Some hard lessons from model alignment. Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 6(4), 11. http://jasss.soc.surrey.ac.uk/6/4/11.html

Eyring, V., Bony, S., Meehl, G. A., Senior, C. A., Stevens, B., Stouffer, R. J., & Taylor, K. E. (2016). Overview of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 6 (CMIP6) experimental design and organization. Geoscientific Model Development, 9(5), 1937–1958. https://doi.org/10.5194/gmd-9-1937-2016

Gates, W. L., Boyle, J. S., Covey, C., Dease, C. G., Doutriaux, C. M., Drach, R. S., Fiorino, M., Gleckler, P. J., Hnilo, J. J., Marlais, S. M., Phillips, T. J., Potter, G. L., Santer, B. D., Sperber, K. R., Taylor, K. E., & Williams, D. N. (1999). An Overview of the Results of the Atmospheric Model Intercomparison Project (AMIP I). In Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society (Vol. 80, Issue 1, pp. 29–55). American Meteorological Society. https://doi.org/10.1175/1520-0477(1999)080<0029:AOOTRO>2.0.CO;2

Hales, D., Rouchier, J., & Edmonds, B. (2003). Model-to-model analysis. Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 6(4), 5. http://jasss.soc.surrey.ac.uk/6/4/5.html

Jones, B.C., DeBruine, L.M., Flake, J.K. et al. To which world regions does the valence–dominance model of social perception apply?. Nat Hum Behav 5, 159–169 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-01007-2

Moshontz, H. + 85 others (2018) The Psychological Science Accelerator: Advancing Psychology Through a Distributed Collaborative Network ,  1(4) 501-515. https://doi.org/10.1177/2515245918797607

Tittensor, D. P., Eddy, T. D., Lotze, H. K., Galbraith, E. D., Cheung, W., Barange, M., Blanchard, J. L., Bopp, L., Bryndum-Buchholz, A., Büchner, M., Bulman, C., Carozza, D. A., Christensen, V., Coll, M., Dunne, J. P., Fernandes, J. A., Fulton, E. A., Hobday, A. J., Huber, V., … Walker, N. D. (2018). A protocol for the intercomparison of marine fishery and ecosystem models: Fish-MIP v1.0. Geoscientific Model Development, 11(4), 1421–1442. https://doi.org/10.5194/gmd-11-1421-2018

Wei, Y., Liu, S., Huntzinger, D. N., Michalak, A. M., Viovy, N., Post, W. M., Schwalm, C. R., Schaefer, K., Jacobson, A. R., Lu, C., Tian, H., Ricciuto, D. M., Cook, R. B., Mao, J., & Shi, X. (2014). The north american carbon program multi-scale synthesis and terrestrial model intercomparison project – Part 2: Environmental driver data. Geoscientific Model Development, 7(6), 2875–2893. https://doi.org/10.5194/gmd-7-2875-2014


Bithell, M. and Edmonds, B. (2020) The Systematic Comparison of Agent-Based Policy Models - It’s time we got our act together!. Review of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 11th May 2021. https://rofasss.org/2021/05/11/SystComp/


 

Basic Modelling Hygiene – keep descriptions about models and what they model clearly distinct

By Bruce Edmonds

The essence of a model is that it relates to something else – what it models – even if this is only a vague or implicit mapping. Otherwise a model would be indistinguishable from any other computer code, set of equations etc (Hesse 1964; Wartofsky 1966). The centrality of this essence makes it unsurprising that many modellers seem to conflate the two.

This is made worse by three factors.

  1. A strong version of Kuhn’s “Spectacles” (Kuhn 1962) where the researcher goes beyond using the model as a way of thinking about the world to projecting their model onto the world, so they see the world only through that “lens”. This effect seems to be much stronger for simulation modelling due to the intimate interaction that occurs over a period of time between modellers and their model.
  2. It is a natural modelling heuristic to make the model more like what it models (Edmonds & al. 2019), introducing more elements of realism. This is especially strong with agent-based modelling which lends itself to complication and descriptive realism.
  3. It is advantageous to stress the potential connections between a model (however abstract) and possible application areas. It is common to start an academic paper with a description of a real-world issue to motivate the work being reported on; then (even if the work is entirely abstract and unvalidated) to suggest conclusions for what is observed. A lack of substantiated connections between model and any empirical data can be covered up by slick passing from the world to the model and back again and a lack of clarity as to what their research achieves (Edmonds & al. 2019).

Whatever the reasons the result is similar – that the language used to describe entities, processes and outcomes in the model is the same as that used for its descriptions of what is intended to be modelled.

Such conflation is common in academic papers (albeit to different degrees). Expert modellers will not usually be confused by such language because they understand the modelling process and know what to look for in a paper. Thus one might ask, what is the harm of a little rhetoric and hype in the reporting of models? After all, we want modellers to be motivated and should thus be tolerant of their enthusiasm. To show the danger I will thus look at an example that talks about modelling aspects of ethnocentrism.

In their paper, entitled “The Evolutionary Dominance of Ethnocentric Cooperation“, Hartshorn, Kaznatcheev & Shultz (2013) further analyse the model described in (Hammond & Axelrod 2006). The authors have reimplemented the original model and extensively analysed it especially the temporal dynamics. The paper is solely about the original model and its properties, there is no pretence of any validation or calibration with respect to any data. The problem is in the language used, because it the language could equally well refer to the model and the real world.

Take the first sentence of its abstract: “Recent agent-based computer simulations suggest that ethnocentrism, often thought to rely on complex social cognition and learning, may have arisen through biological evolution“. This sounds like the simulation suggests something about the world we live in – that, as the title suggests, Ethnocentric cooperation naturally dominates other strategies (e.g. humanitarianism) and so it is natural. The rest of the abstract then goes on in the same sort of language which could equally apply to the model and the real world.

Expert modellers will understand that they were talking about the purely abstract properties of the model, but this will not be clear to other readers. However, in this case there is evidence that it is a problem. This paper has, in recent years, shot to the top of page requests from the JASSS website (22nd May 2020) at 162,469 requests over a 7-day period, but is nowhere in the top 50 articles in terms of JASSS-JASSS citations. Tracing where these requests come from, results in many alt-right and Russian web sites. It seems that many on the far right see this paper as confirmation of their Nationalist and Racist viewpoints. This is far more attention than a technical paper just about a model would get, so presumably they took it as confirmation about real-world conclusions (or were using it to fool others about the scientific support for their viewpoints) – namely that Ethnocentrism does beat Humanitarianism and this is an evolutionary inevitability [note 1].

This is an extreme example of the confusion that occurs when non-expert modellers read many papers on modelling. Modellers too often imply a degree of real-world relevance when this is not justified by their research. They often imply real-world conclusions before any meaningful validation has been done. As agent-based simulation reaches a less specialised audience, this will become more important.

Some suggestions to avoid this kind of confusion:

  • After the motivation section, carefully outline what part this research will play in the broader programme – do not leave this implicit or imply a larger role than is justified
  • Add in the phrase “in the model” frequently in the text, even if this is a bit repetitive [note 2]
  • Keep  discussions about the real world in a different sections from those that discuss the model
  • Have an explicit statement of what the model can reliably say about the real world
  • Use different terms when referring to parts of the model and part of the real world (e.g. actors for real world individuals, agents in the model)
  • Be clear about the intended purpose of the model – what can be achieved as a result of this research (Edmonds et al. 2019) – for example, do not imply the model will be able to predict future real world properties until this has been demonstrated (de Matos Fernandes & Keijzer 2020)
  • Be very cautious in what you conclude from your model – make sure this is what has been already achieved rather than a reflection of your aspirations (in fact it might be better to not mention such hopes at all until they are realised)

Notes

  1. To see that this kind of conclusion is not necessary see (Hales & Edmonds 2019).
  2. This is similar to a campaign to add the words “in mice” in reports about medical “breakthroughs”, (https://www.statnews.com/2019/04/15/in-mice-twitter-account-hype-science-reporting)

Acknowledgements

Bruce Edmonds is supported as part of the ESRC-funded, UK part of the “ToRealSim” project, grant number ES/S015159/1.

References

Edmonds, B., et al. (2019) Different Modelling Purposes, Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation 22(3), 6. <http://jasss.soc.surrey.ac.uk/22/3/6.html>. doi:10.18564/jasss.3993

Hammond, R. A., N. D. and Axelrod, R. (2006). The Evolution of Ethnocentrism. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 50(6), 926–936. doi:10.1177/0022002706293470

Hartshorn, Max, Kaznatcheev, Artem and Shultz, Thomas (2013) The Evolutionary Dominance of Ethnocentric Cooperation, Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation 16(3), 7. <http://jasss.soc.surrey.ac.uk/16/3/7.html>. doi:10.18564/jasss.2176

Hesse, M. (1964). Analogy and confirmation theory. Philosophy of Science, 31(4), 319-327.

Kuhn, T. S. (1962). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Univ. of Chicago Press.

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/

Wartofsky, M. (1966). the Model Muddle – Proposals for an Immodest Realism. Journal Of Philosophy, 63(19), 589-589.


Edmonds, B. (2020) Basic Modelling Hygiene - keep descriptions about models and what they model clearly distinct. Review of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 22nd May 2020. https://rofasss.org/2020/05/22/modelling-hygiene/


 

What more is needed for Democratically Accountable Modelling?

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 (Aodha & 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.

Notes

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.

References

Barton et al. (2020) Call for transparency of COVID-19 models. Science, Vol. 368(6490), 482-483. doi:10.1126/science.abb8637

Aodha, L.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 http://cfpm.org/discussionpapers/236)

Calder, M., Craig, C., Culley, D., de Cani, R., Donnelly, C.A., Douglas, R., Edmonds, B., Gascoigne, J., Gilbert, N. Hargrove, C., Hinds, D., Lane, D.C., Mitchell, D., Pavey, G., Robertson, D., Rosewell, B., Sherwin, S., Walport, M. & Wilson, A. (2018) Computational modelling for decision-making: where, why, what, who and how. Royal Society Open Science,

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/


 

Good Modelling Takes a Lot of Time and Many Eyes

By Bruce Edmonds

(A contribution to the: JASSS-Covid19-Thread)

It is natural to want to help in a crisis (Squazzoni et al. 2020), but it is important to do something that is actually useful rather than just ‘adding to the noise’. Usefully modelling disease spread within complex societies is not easy to do – which essentially means there are two options:

  1. Model it in a fairly abstract manner to explore ideas and mechanisms, but without the empirical grounding and validation needed to reliably support policy making.
  2. Model it in an empirically testable manner with a view to answering some specific questions and possibly inform policy in a useful manner.

Which one does depends on the modelling purpose one has in mind (Edmonds et al. 2019). Both routes are legitimate as long as one is clear as to what it can and cannot do. The dangers come when there is confusion –  taking the first route whilst giving policy actors the impression one is doing the second risks deceiving people and giving false confidence (Edmonds & Adoha 2019, Elsenbroich & Badham 2020). Here I am only discussing the second, empirically ambitious route.

Some of the questions that policy-makers might want to ask, include, what might happen if we: close the urban parks, allow children of a specific range of ages go to school one day a week, cancel 75% of the intercity trains, allow people to go to beauty spots, visit sick relatives in hospital or test people as they recover and give them a certificate to allow them to go back to work?

To understand what might happen in these scenarios would require an agent-based model where agents made the kind of mundane, every-day decisions of where to go and who to meet, such that the patterns and outputs of the model were consistent with known data (possibly following the ‘Pattern-Oriented Modelling’ of Grimm & Railsback 2012). This is currently lacking. However this would require:

  1. A long-term, iterative development (Bithell 2018), with many cycles of model development followed by empirical comparison and data collection. This means that this kind of model might be more useful for the next epidemic rather than the current one.
  2. A collective approach rather than one based on individual modellers. In any very complex model it is impossible to understand it all – there are bound to be small errors and programmed mechanisms will subtly interaction with others. As (Siebers & Venkatesan 2020) pointed out this means collaborating with people from other disciplines (which always takes time to make work), but it also means an open approach where lots of modellers routinely inspect, replicate, pull apart, critique and play with other modellers’ work – without anyone getting upset or feeling criticised. This does involve an institutional and normative embedding of good modelling practice (as discussed in Squazzoni et al. 2020) but also requires a change in attitude – from individual to collective achievement.

Both are necessary if we are to build the modelling infrastructure that may allow us to model policy options for the next epidemic. We will need to start now if we are to be ready because it will not be easy.

References

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

Edmonds, B. & Adoha, L. (2019) Using agent-based simulation to inform policy – what could possibly go wrong? In Davidson, P. & Verhargen, H. (Eds.) (2019). Multi-Agent-Based Simulation XIX, 19th International Workshop, MABS 2018, Stockholm, Sweden, July 14, 2018, Revised Selected Papers. Lecture Notes in AI, 11463, Springer, pp. 1-16. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-22270-3_1

Edmonds, B., Le Page, C., Bithell, M., Chattoe-Brown, E., Grimm, V., Meyer, R., Montañola-Sales, C., Ormerod, P., Root, H., & Squazzoni, F. (2019). Different Modelling Purposes. Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 22(3), 6. <http://jasss.soc.surrey.ac.uk/22/3/6.html> doi: 10.18564/jasss.3993

Elsenbroich, C. and Badham, J. (2020) Focussing on our Strengths. Review of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 12th April 2020. https://rofasss.org/2020/04/12/focussing-on-our-strengths/

Grimm, V., & Railsback, S. F. (2012). Pattern-oriented modelling: a ‘multi-scope’for predictive systems ecology. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 367(1586), 298-310. doi:10.1098/rstb.2011.0180

Siebers, P-O. and Venkatesan, S. (2020) Get out of your silos and work together. Review of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 8th April 2020. https://rofasss.org/2020/0408/get-out-of-your-silos

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) 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/


 

Predicting Social Systems – a Challenge

By Bruce Edmonds, Gary Polhill and David Hales

(Part of the Prediction-Thread)

There is a lot of pressure on social scientists to predict. Not only is an ability to predict implicit in all requests to assess or optimise policy options before they are tried, but prediction is also the “gold standard” of science. However, there is a debate among modellers of complex social systems about whether this is possible to any meaningful extent. In this context, the aim of this paper is to issue the following challenge:

Are there any documented examples of models that predict useful aspects of complex social systems?

To do this the paper will:

  1. define prediction in a way that corresponds to what a wider audience might expect of it
  2. give some illustrative examples of prediction and non-prediction
  3. request examples where the successful prediction of social systems is claimed
  4. and outline the aspects on which these examples will be analysed

About Prediction

We start by defining prediction, taken from (Edmonds et al. 2019). This is a pragmatic definition designed to encapsulate common sense usage – what a wider public (e.g. policy makers or grant givers) might reasonably expect from “a prediction”.

By ‘prediction’, we mean the ability to reliably anticipate well-defined aspects of data that is not currently known to a useful degree of accuracy via computations using the model.

Let us clarify the language in this.

  • It has to be reliable. That is, one can rely upon its prediction as one makes this – a model that predicts erratically and only occasionally predicts is no help, since one does not whether to believe any particular prediction. This usually means that (a) it has made successful predictions for several independent cases and (b) the conditions under which it works is (roughly) known.
  • What is predicted has to be unknown at the time of prediction. That is, the prediction has to be made before the prediction is verified. Predicting known data (as when a model is checked on out-of-sample data) is not sufficient [1]. Nor is the practice of looking for phenomena that is consistent with the results of a model, after they have been generated (due to ignoring all the phenomena that is not consistent with the model in this process).
  • What is being predicted is well defined. That is, How to use the model to make a prediction about observed data is clear. An abstract model that is very suggestive – appears to predict phenomena but in a vague and undefined manner but where one has to invent the mapping between model and data to make this work – may be useful as a way of thinking about phenomena, but this is different from empirical prediction.
  • Which aspects of data about being predicted is open. As Watts (2014) points out, this is not restricted to point numerical predictions of some measurable value but could be a wider pattern. Examples of this include: a probabilistic prediction, a range of values, a negative prediction (this will not happen), or a second-order characteristic (such as the shape of a distribution or a correlation between variables). What is important is that (a) this is a useful characteristic to predict and (b) that this can be checked by an independent actor. Thus, for example, when predicting a value, the accuracy of that prediction depends on its use.
  • The prediction has to use the model in an essential manner. Claiming to predict something obviously inevitable which does not use the model is insufficient – the model has to distinguish which of the possible outcomes is being predicted at the time.

Thus, prediction is different from other kinds of scientific/empirical uses, such as description and explanation (Edmonds et al. 2019). Some modellers use “prediction” to mean any output from a model, regardless of its relationship to any observation of what is being modelled [2]. Others use “prediction” for any empirical fitting of data, regardless of whether that data is known before hand. However here we wish to be clearer and avoid any “post-truth” softening of the meaning of the word for two reasons (a) distinguishing different kinds of model use is crucial in matters of model checking or validation and (b) these “softer” kinds of empirical purpose will simply confuse the wider public when if talk to themabout “prediction”. One suspects that modellers have accepted these other meanings because it then allows them to claim they can predict (Edmonds 2017).

Some Examples

Nate Silver and his team aim to predict future social phenomena, such as the results of elections and the outcome of sports competitions. He correctly predicted the outcomes of all 50 electoral colleges in Obama’s election before it happened. This is a data-hungry approach, which involves the long-term development of simulations that carefully see what can be inferred from the available data, with repeated trial and error. The forecasts are probabilistic and repeated many times. As well as making predictions, his unit tries to establish the level of uncertainty in those predictions – being honest about the probability of those predictions coming about given the likely levels of error and bias in the data. These models are not agent-based in nature but tend to be of a mostly statistical nature, thus it is debatable whether these are treated as complex systems – it certainly does not use any theory from complexity science. His book (Silver 2012) describes his approach. Post hoc analysis of predictions – explaining why it worked or not – is kept distinct from the predictive models themselves – this analysis may inform changes to the predictive model but is not then incorporated into the model. The analysis is thus kept independent of the predictive model so it can be an effective check.

Many models in economics and ecology claim to “predict” but on inspection, this only means there is a fit to some empirical data. For example, (Meese & Rogoff 1983) looked at 40 econometric models where they claimed they were predicting some time-series. However, 37 out of 40 models failed completely when tested on newly available data from the same time series that they claimed to predict. Clearly, although presented as being predictive models, they could not predict unknown data. Although we do not know for sure, presumably what happened was that these models had been (explicitly or implicitly) fitted to the out-of-sample data, because the out-of-sample data was already known to the modeller. That is, if the model failed to fit the out-of-sample data when the model was tested, it was then adjusted until it did work, or alternatively, only those models that fitted the out-of-sample data were published.

The Challenge

The challenge is envisioned as happening like this.

  1. We publicise this paper requesting that people send us example of prediction or near-prediction on complex social systems with pointers to the appropriate documentation.
  2. We collect these and analyse them according to the characteristics and questions described below.
  3. We will post some interim results in January 2020 [3], in order to prompt more examples and to stimulate discussion. The final deadline for examples is the end of March 2020.
  4. We will publish the list of all the examples sent to us on the web, and present our summary and conclusions at Social Simulation 2020 in Milan and have a discussion there about the nature and prospects for the prediction of complex social systems. Anyone who contributed an example will be invited to be a co-author if they wish to be so-named.

How suggestions will be judged

For each suggestion, a number of answers will be sought – namely to the following questions:

  • What are the papers or documents that describe the model?
  • Is there an explicit claim that the model can predict (as opposed to might in the future)?
  • What kind of characteristics are being predicted (number, probabilistic, range…)?
  • Is there evidence of a prediction being made before the prediction was verified?
  • Is there evidence of the model being used for a series of independent predictions?
  • Were any of the predictions verified by a team that is independent of the one that made the prediction?
  • Is there evidence of the same team or similar models making failed predictions?
  • To what extent did the model need extensive calibration/adjustment before the prediction?
  • What role does theory play (if any) in the model?
  • Are the conditions under which predictive ability claimed described?

Of course, negative answers to any of the above about a particular model does not mean that the model cannot predict. What we are assessing is the evidence that a model can predict something meaningful about complex social systems. (Silver 2012) describes the method by which they attempt prediction, but this method might be different from that described in most theory-based academic papers.

Possible Outcomes

This exercise might shed some light of some interesting questions, such as:

  • What kind of prediction of complex social systems has been attempted?
  • Are there any examples where the reliable prediction of complex social systems has been achieved?
  • Are there certain kinds of social phenomena which seem to more amenable to prediction than others?
  • Does aiming to predict with a model entail any difference in method than projects with other aims?
  • Are there any commonalities among the projects that achieve reliable prediction?
  • Is there anything we could (collectively) do that would encourage or document good prediction?

It might well be that whether prediction is achievable might depend on exactly what is meant by the word.

Acknowledgements

This paper resulted from a “lively discussion” after Gary’s (Polhill et al. 2019) talk about prediction at the Social Simulation conference in Mainz. Many thanks to all those who joined in this. Of course, prior to this we have had many discussions about prediction. These have included Gary’s previous attempt at a prediction competition (Polhill 2018) and Scott Moss’s arguments about prediction in economics (which has many parallels with the debate here).

Notes

[1] This is sufficient for other empirical purposes, such as explanation (Edmonds et al. 2019)

[2] Confusingly they sometimes the word “forecasting” for what we mean by predict here.

[3] Assuming we have any submitted examples to talk about

References

Edmonds, B. & Adoha, L. (2019) Using agent-based simulation to inform policy – what could possibly go wrong? In Davidson, P. & Verhargen, H. (Eds.) (2019). Multi-Agent-Based Simulation XIX, 19th International Workshop, MABS 2018, Stockholm, Sweden, July 14, 2018, Revised Selected Papers. Lecture Notes in AI, 11463, Springer, pp. 1-16. DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-22270-3_1 (see also http://cfpm.org/discussionpapers/236)

Edmonds, B. (2017) The post-truth drift in social simulation. Social Simulation Conference (SSC2017), Dublin, Ireland. (http://cfpm.org/discussionpapers/195)

Edmonds, B., le Page, C., Bithell, M., Chattoe-Brown, E., Grimm, V., Meyer, R., Montañola-Sales, C., Ormerod, P., Root H. & Squazzoni. F. (2019) Different Modelling Purposes. Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 22(3):6. http://jasss.soc.surrey.ac.uk/22/3/6.html.

Grimm V, Revilla E, Berger U, Jeltsch F, Mooij WM, Railsback SF, Thulke H-H, Weiner J, Wiegand T, DeAngelis DL (2005) Pattern-oriented modeling of agent-based complex systems: lessons from ecology. Science 310: 987-991.

Meese, R.A. & Rogoff, K. (1983) Empirical Exchange Rate models of the Seventies – do they fit out of sample? Journal of International Economics, 14:3-24.

Polhill, G. (2018) Why the social simulation community should tackle prediction, Review of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 6th August 2018. https://rofasss.org/2018/08/06/gp/

Polhill, G., Hare, H., Anzola, D., Bauermann, T., French, T., Post, H. and Salt, D. (2019) Using ABMs for prediction: Two thought experiments and a workshop. Social Simulation 2019, Mainz.

Silver, N. (2012). The signal and the noise: the art and science of prediction. Penguin UK.

Thorngate, W. & Edmonds, B. (2013) Measuring simulation-observation fit: An introduction to ordinal pattern analysis. Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 16(2):14. http://jasss.soc.surrey.ac.uk/16/2/4.html

Watts, D. J. (2014). Common Sense and Sociological Explanations. American Journal of Sociology, 120(2), 313-351.


Edmonds, B., Polhill, G and Hales, D. (2019) Predicting Social Systems – a Challenge. Review of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 4th June 2019. https://rofasss.org/2018/11/04/predicting-social-systems-a-challenge


 

Some Philosophical Viewpoints on Social Simulation

By Bruce Edmonds

How one thinks about knowledge can have a significant impact on how one develops models as well as how one might judge a good model.

  • Pragmatism. Under this view a simulation is a tool for a particular purpose. Different purposes will imply different tests for a good model. What is useful for one purpose might well not be good for another – different kinds of models and modelling processes might be good for each purpose. A simulation whose purpose is to explore the theoretical implications of some assumptions might well be very different from one aiming to explain some observed data. An example of this approach is (Edmonds & al. 2019).
  • Social Constructivism. Here knowledge about social phenomena (including simulation models) are collectively constructed. There is no other kind of knowledge than this. Each simulation is a way of thinking about social reality and plays a part in constructing it so. What is a suitable construction may vary over time and between cultures etc. What a group of people construct is not necessarily limited to simulations that are related to empirical data. (Ahrweiler & Gilbert 2005) seem to take this view but this is more explicit in some of the participatory modelling work, where the aim is to construct a simulation that is acceptable to a group of people, e.g. (Etienne 2014).
  • Relativism. There are no bad models, only different ways of mediating between your thought and reality (Morgan 1999). If you work hard on developing your model, you do not get a better model, only a different one. This might be a consequence of holding to an Epistemological Constructivist position.
  • Descriptive Realism. A simulation is a picture of some aspect of reality (albeit at a much lower ‘resolution’ and imperfectly). If one obtains a faithful representation of some aspect of reality as a model, one can use it for many different purposes. Could imply very complicated models (depending on what one observes and decides is relevant), which might themselves be difficult to understand. I suspect that many people have this in mind as they develop models, but few explicitly take this approach. Maybe an example is (Fieldhouse et al. 2016).
  • Classic Positivism. Here, the empirical fit and the analytic understanding of the simulation is all that matters, nothing else. Models should be tested against data and discarded if inadequate (or they compete and one is currently ahead empirically). Also they should be simple enough that they can be thoroughly understood. There is no obligation to be descriptively realistic. Many physics approaches to social phenomena follow this path (e.g Helbing 2010, Galam 2012).

Of course, few authors make their philosophical position explicit – usually one has to infer it from their text and modelling style.

References

Ahrweiler, P. and Gilbert, N. (2005). Caffè Nero: the Evaluation of Social Simulation. Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation 8(4):14. http://jasss.soc.surrey.ac.uk/8/4/14.html

Edmonds, B., le Page, C., Bithell, M., Chattoe-Brown, E., Grimm, V., Meyer, R., Montañola-Sales, C., Ormerod, P., Root H. and Squazzoni. F. (in press) Different Modelling Purposes. Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 22(3):6. http://jasss.soc.surrey.ac.uk/22/3/6.html.

Etienne, M. (ed.) (2014) Companion Modelling: A Participatory Approach to Support Sustainable Development. Springer

Fieldhouse, E., Lessard-Phillips, L. and Edmonds, B. (2016) Cascade or echo chamber? A complex agent-based simulation of voter turnout. Party Politics. 22(2):241-256. DOI:10.1177/1354068815605671

Galam, S. (2012) Sociophysics: A Physicist’s modeling of psycho-political phenomena. Springer.

Helbing, D. (2010). Quantitative sociodynamics: stochastic methods and models of social interaction processes. Springer.

Morgan, M. S., Morrison, M., & Skinner, Q. (Eds.). (1999). Models as mediators: Perspectives on natural and social science (Vol. 52). Cambridge University Press.


Edmonds, B. (2019) Some Philosophical Viewpoints on Social Simulation. Review of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 2nd July 2019. https://rofasss.org/2019/07/02/phil-view/


 

A bad assumption: a simpler model is more general

By Bruce Edmonds

If one adds in some extra detail to a general model it can become more specific — that is it then only applies to those cases where that particular detail held. However the reverse is not true: simplifying a model will not make it more general – it is just you can imagine it would be more general.

To see why this is, consider an accurate linear equation, then eliminate the variable leaving just a constant. The equation is now simpler, but now will only be true at only one point (and only be approximately right in a small region around that point) – it is much less general than the original, because it is true for far fewer cases.

This is not very surprising – a claim that a model has general validity is a very strong claim – it is unlikely to be achieved by arm-chair reflection or by merely leaving out most of the observed processes.

Only under some special conditions does simplification result in greater generality:

  • When what is simplified away is essentially irrelevant to the outcomes of interest (e.g. when there is some averaging process over a lot of random deviations)
  • When what is simplified away happens to be constant for all the situations considered (e.g. gravity is always 9.8m/s^2 downwards)
  • When you loosen your criteria for being approximately right hugely as you simplify (e.g. mover from a requirement that results match some concrete data to using the model as a vague analogy for what is happening)

In other cases, where you compare like with like (i.e. you don’t move the goalposts such as in (3) above) then it only works if you happen to know what can be safely simplified away.

Why people think that simplification might lead to generality is somewhat of a mystery. Maybe they assume that the universe has to obey ultimately laws so that simplification is the right direction (but of course, even if this were true, we would not know which way to safely simplify). Maybe they are really thinking about the other direction, slowly becoming more accurate by making the model mirror the target more. Maybe this is just a justification for laziness, an excuse for avoiding messy complicated models. Maybe they just associate simple models with physics. Maybe they just hope their simple model is more general.

References

Aodha, L. and 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.

Edmonds, B. (2007) Simplicity is Not Truth-Indicative. In Gershenson, C.et al. (2007) Philosophy and Complexity. World Scientific, 65-80.

Edmonds, B. (2017) Different Modelling Purposes. In Edmonds, B. & Meyer, R. (eds.) Simulating Social Complexity – a handbook, 2nd edition. Springer, 39-58.

Edmonds, B. and Moss, S. (2005) From KISS to KIDS – an ‘anti-simplistic’ modelling approach. In P. Davidsson et al. (Eds.): Multi Agent Based Simulation 2004. Springer, Lecture Notes in Artificial Intelligence, 3415:130–144.


Edmonds, B. (2018) A bad assumption: a simpler model is more general. Review of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 28th August 2018. https://rofasss.org/2018/08/28/be-2/