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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 well-defined way that a 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 is sudden abstraction ‘jump’ 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 what kind of thing the model aims 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


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 is probably isn’t.


[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.


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


Achter, S., Borit, M., Chattoe-Brown, E., Palaretti, C. & Siebers, P.-O. (2019) Cherchez Le RAT: A Proposed Plan for Augmenting Rigour and Transparency of Data Use in ABM. Review of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 4th June 2019. https://rofasss.org/2019/06/04/rat/

Arnold, E. (2014). What’s wrong with social simulations?. The Monist, 97(3), 359-377. DOI:10.5840/monist201497323

Baily, M. N., Litan, R. E., & Johnson, M. S. (2008). The origins of the financial crisis. Fixing Finance Series – Paper 3, The Brookings Institution. https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/11_origins_crisis_baily_litan.pdf

Chattoe-Brown, E. (2018) What is the earliest example of a social science simulation (that is nonetheless arguably an ABM) and shows real and simulated data in the same figure or table? Review of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation, 11th June 2018. https://rofasss.org/2018/06/11/ecb/

Edmonds, B. (2001) The Use of Models – making MABS actually work. In. Moss, S. and Davidsson, P. (eds.), Multi Agent Based Simulation, Lecture Notes in Artificial Intelligence, 1979:15-32. http://cfpm.org/cpmrep74.html

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/

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.

Epstein, J. M. (2008). Why model?. Journal of artificial societies and social simulation, 11(4), 12. https://jasss.soc.surrey.ac.uk/11/4/12.html

Hartmann, S. (1997): Modelling and the Aims of Science. In: Weingartner, P. et al (ed.) : The Role of Pragmatics in Contemporary Philosophy: Contributions of the Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein Society. Vol. 5. Wien und Kirchberg: Digi-Buch. pp. 380-385. https://epub.ub.uni-muenchen.de/25393/

Krugman, P. (2009) How Did Economists Get It So Wrong? New York Times, Sept. 2nd 2009. https://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/06/magazine/06Economic-t.html

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

Lakoff, G. (1987) Women, fire, and dangerous things. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Morgan, M. S., & Morrison, M. (1999). Models as mediators. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Moss, S. (1998) Social Simulation Models and Reality: Three Approaches. Centre for Policy Modelling  Discussion Paper: CPM-98-35, http://cfpm.org/cpmrep35.html

Popper, K. (1957). The poverty of historicism. Routledge.

Vranckx, An. (1999) Science, Fiction & the Appeal of Complexity. In Aerts, Diederik, Serge Gutwirth, Sonja Smets, and Luk Van Langehove, (eds.) Science, Technology, and Social Change: The Orange Book of “Einstein Meets Magritte.” Brussels: Vrije Universiteit Brussel; Dordrecht: Kluwer., pp. 283–301.

Wartofsky, M. W. (1979). The model muddle: Proposals for an immodest realism. In Models (pp. 1-11). Springer, Dordrecht.

Zeigler, B. P. (1976). Theory of Modeling and Simulation. Wiley Interscience, New York.

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


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)


  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)


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


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/