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No one can predict the future: More than a semantic dispute

By Carlos A. de Matos Fernandes and Marijn A. Keijzer

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

Models are pivotal to battle the current COVID-19 crisis. In their call to action, Squazzoni et al. (2020) convincingly put forward how social simulation researchers could and should respond in the short run by posing three challenges for the community among which is a COVID-19 prediction challenge. Although Squazzoni et al. (2020) stress the importance of transparent communication of model assumptions and conditions, we question the liberal use of the word ‘prediction’ for the outcomes of the broad arsenal of models used to mitigate the COVID-19 crisis by ours and other modelling communities. Four key arguments are provided that advocate using expectations derived from scenarios when explaining our models to a wider, possibly non-academic audience.

The current COVID-19 crisis necessitates that we implement life-changing policies that, to a large extent, build upon predictions from complex, quickly adapted, and sometimes poorly understood models. The examples of models spurring the news to produce catchphrase headlines are abundant (Imperial College, AceMod-Australian Census-based Epidemic Model, IndiaSIM, IHME, etc.). And even though most of these models will be useful to assess the comparative effectiveness of interventions in our aim to ‘flatten the curve’, the predictions that disseminate to news media are those of total cases or timing of the inflection point.

The current focus on predictive epidemiological and behavioural models brings back an important discussion about prediction in social systems. “[T]here is a lot of pressure for social scientists to predict” (Edmonds, Polhill & Hales, 2019), and we might add ‘especially nowadays’. But forecasting in human systems is often tricky (Hofman, Sharma & Watts, 2017). Approaches that take well-understood theories and simple mechanisms often fail to grasp the complexity of social systems, yet models that rely on complex supervised machine learning-like approaches may offer misleading levels of confidence (as was elegantly shown recently by Salganik et al., 2020). COVID-19 models appear to be no exception as a recent review concluded that “[…] their performance estimates are likely to be optimistic and misleading” (Wynants et al., 2020, p. 9). Squazzoni et al. describe these pitfalls too (2020: paragraph 3.3). In the crisis at hand, it may even be counter-productive to rely on complex models that combine well-understood mechanisms with many uncertain parameters (Elsenbroich & Badham, 2020).

Considering the level of confidence we can have about predictive models in general, we believe there is an issue with the way predictions are communicated by the community. Scientists often use ‘prediction’ to refer to some outcome of a (statistical) model where they ‘predict’ aspects of the data that are already known, but momentarily set aside. Edmonds et al. (2019: paragraph 2.4) state that “[b]y ‘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”. Predictive accuracy, in this case, can then be computed later on, by comparing the prediction to the truth. Scientists know that when talking about predictions of their models, they don’t claim to generalize to situations outside of the narrow scope of their study sample or their artificial society. We are not predicting the future, and wouldn’t claim we could. However, this is wildly different from how ‘prediction’ is commonly understood: As an estimation of some unknown thing in the future. Now that our models quickly disseminate to the general public, we need to be careful with the way we talk about their outcomes.

Predictions in the COVID-19 crisis will remain imperfect. In the current virus outbreak, society cannot afford to rely on the falsification of models for interventions against empirical data. As the virus remains to spread rapidly, our only option is to rely on models as a basis for policy, ceteris paribus. And it is precisely here – at ‘ceteris paribus’ – where the terminology ‘predictions’ miss the mark. All things will not be equal tomorrow, the next day, or the day after that (Van Bavel et al. [2020] note numerous topics that affect managing the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on society). Policies around the globe are constantly being tweaked, and people’s behaviour changes dramatically as a consequence (Google, 2020). Relying on predictions too much may give a false sense of security.

We propose to avoid using the word ‘prediction’ too much and talk about scenarios or expectations instead where possible. We identify four reasons why you should avoid talking about prediction right now:

  1. Not everyone is acquainted with noise and emergence. Computational Social Scientists generally understand the effects of noise in social systems (Squazzoni et al., 2020: paragraph 1.8). Small behavioural irregularities can be reinforced in complex systems fostering unexpected outcomes. Yet, scientists not acquainted with studying complex social systems may be unfamiliar with the principles we have internalized by now, and put over-confidence in the median outputs of volatile models that enter the scientific sphere as predictions.
  2. Predictions do not convey uncertainty. The general public is usually unacquainted with academic esoteric concepts. For instance, showing a flatten-the-curve scenario generally builds upon mean or median approximation, oftentimes neglecting to include variability of different scenarios. Still, there are numerous other outcomes, building on different parameter values. We fear that by stating a prediction to an undisciplined public, they expect such a thing to occur for certain. If we forecast a sunny day, but there’s rain, people are upset. Talking about scenarios, expectations, and mechanisms may prevent confusion and opposition when the forecast does not occur.
  3. It’s a model, not a reality. The previous argument feeds into the third notion: Be honest about what you model. A model is a model. Even the most richly calibrated model is a model. That is not to say that such models are not informative (we reiterate: models are not a shot in the dark). Still, richly calibrated models based on poor data may be more misleading than less calibrated models (Elsenbroich & Badham, 2020). Empirically calibrated models may provide more confidence at face value, but it lies in the nature of complex systems that small measurement errors in the input data may lead to big deviations in outputs. Models present a scenario for our theoretical reasoning with a given set of parameter values. We can update a model with empirical data to increase reliability but it remains a scenario about a future state given an (often expansive) set of assumptions (recently beautifully visualized by Koerth, Bronner, & Mithani, 2020).
  4. Stop predicting, start communicating. Communication is pivotal during a crisis. An abundance of research shows that communicating clearly and honestly is a best practice during a crisis, generally comforting the general public (e.g., Seeger, 2006). Squazzoni et al. (2020) call for transparent communication. by stating that “[t]he limitations of models and the policy recommendations derived from them have to be openly communicated and transparently addressed”. We are united in our aim to avert the COVID-19 crisis but should be careful that overconfidence doesn’t erode society’s trust in science. Stating unequivocally that we hope – based on expectations – to avert a crisis by implementing some policy, does not preclude altering our course of action when an updated scenario about the future may require us to do so. Modellers should communicate clearly to policy-makers and the general public that this is the role of computational models that are being updated daily.

Squazzoni et al. (2020) set out the agenda for our community in the coming months and it is an important one. Let’s hope that the expectations from the scenarios in our well-informed models will not fall on deaf ears.

References

Edmonds, B., Polhill, G., & 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

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., & 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/

Google. (2020). COVID-19 Mobility Reports. https://www.google.com/covid19/mobility/ (Accessed 15th April 2020)

Hofman, J. M., Sharma, A., & Watts, D. J. (2017). Prediction and Explanation in Social Systems. Science, 355, 486–488. doi: 10.1126/science.aal3856

Koerth, M., Bronner, L., & Mithani, J. (2020, March 31). Why It’s So Freaking Hard To Make A Good COVID-19 Model. FiveThirtyEight. https://fivethirtyeight.com/

Salganik, M. J. et al. (2020). Measuring the Predictability of Life Outcomes with a Scientific Mass Collaboration. PNAS. 201915006. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1915006117

Seeger, M. W. (2006). Best Practices in Crisis Communication: An Expert Panel Process, Journal of Applied Communication Research, 34(3), 232-244.  doi: 10.1080/00909880600769944

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

Van Bavel, J. J. et al. (2020). Using social and behavioural science to support COVID-19 pandemic response. PsyArXiv. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/y38m9

Wynants. L., et al. (2020). Prediction models for diagnosis and prognosis of COVID-19 infection: systematic review and critical appraisal. BMJ, 369, m1328. doi: 10.1136/bmj.m1328


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/