Alternative Model Assessment Criteria

Given the discussion in the previous posts regarding the nature of socio-ecological systems, equifinality and relativism in environmental modelling, how should we go about assessing the worth and performance of our simulation models of human-environment systems?

Simulation models are tangible manifestations of a modellers’ ‘mental model’ of the structure of the system being examined. Socio-Ecological Simulation Models (SESMs) may be thought of as logical and factual arguments made by a modeller, based on their mental model. If the model assumptions hold, these arguments should provide a cogent and persuasive indication of how system states may change under different scenarios of environmental, economic and social conditions. However, the resulting simulation model, based upon a logical and factually coherent mental model, is unlikely to be validated on these two criteria (logic and fact) alone.

First, the problems of equifinality suggest that there are multiple logical model structures that could be implemented for any particular system. Second, accurate mimetic reproduction of an empirical system state by a model may be the most persuasive form of the factual proof of a model in many eyes, but the dangers of affirming the consequent make it impossible to prove temporal predictions in models of open systems are truly accurate. Simulation models may be based on facts about empirical systems, but their results cannot be taken as facts about the modelled empirical system.

Thus, some other criteria alongside the logical and factual criteria will be useful to evaluate or validate a SESM. A third and fourth criteria, for environmental simulation models that consider the interaction of social and ecological systems at least, are available by specifically considering the user(s) of a model and its output. These criteria are closely linked.

My third proposed criterion is the establishment of user trust in the model. Trust is used here in the sense of ‘confidence in the model’. If a person using a model or its results does not trust the model it will likely not be deemed fit for its intended purpose. If confidence is lacking in the model or its results, confidence will consequently be lacking in any knowledge derived, decision made, or policy recommended based upon the model. Thus, the use of trust as a criterion for validation is a form of ‘social validation’, ensuring that user(s) agree the model is a legitimate representation of the system.

The fourth criteria by which a model might achieve legitimacy and receive a favourable evaluation (i.e. be validated), is the provision of some form of utility to the user. This utility will be termed ‘practical adequacy’. If a model is not trusted then it will not be practically adequate for its purpose. However, regardless of trust, if the model is not able to address the problems or questions set by the user then the model is equally practically inadequate.

The addition of these two criteria, centred on the model user rather than the model itself, suggests a shift away from falsification and deduction as model validation techniques, toward more reflexive approaches. The shift in emphasis is away from establishing the truth and mimetic accuracy of a model and toward ensuring trust and practical adequacy. By considering trust and practical adequacy, validation becomes an exercise in model evaluation and reclaims its more appropriate meaning of ‘establising a model’s legitimacy’.

From his observation of experimental physicists and work on the ‘experimenter’s regress’, Collins has arrived at the view that there is no distinction between epistemological criteria and social forces to resolve a scientific dispute. The position outlined previously seems to imply a similar situation for models of open, middle-numbered systems where modellers are required to resort to social criteria to justify their models due the inability to do so convincingly epistemologically. This is not necessarily an idea that many natural scientists will sit comfortably with. However, the shift away from truth and mimetic accuracy should not necessarily be something modellers would object to.

First, all modellers know that their models are not true, exact replications of reality. A model is an approximation of reality – there is no need to create a model system if experimentation on the existing empirical system is possible. Furthermore, accepting the results of a model are not ‘true’ (i.e. in the sense that they are perfect predictions of the future) in no way requires the model be built on incorrect logic or facts. As Hesse notes in criticism of Collins, whilst the resolution of scientific disputes might result from a social decision that is not forced by the facts, “it does not follow that social decision has nothing to do with objective fact”.

Second, regardless of truth and mimetic accuracy, modellers have several options to build trust and ensure practical adequacy scientifically. Ensuring models are logically coherent and not factually invalid (i.e. criteria one and two) will already have come some way to make a scientific case. Furthermore, the traditions of scientific methodological and theoretical simplicity and elegance can be observed, and the important unifying potential across theories and between disciplines that modelling offers can be emphasised. Thus, regardless of the failures of epistemological methods for justifying them, socio-ecological and other environmental simulation models must be built upon solid logical and factual foundations;

“The postmodern world may be a nightmare for … normal science (Kuhn 1962), but science still deserves to be privileged, because it is still the best game in town. … [Scientists] need to continue to be meticulous and quantitative. But more than this, we need scientific models that can inform policy and action at the larger scales that matter. Simple questions with one right answer cannot deliver on that front. The myth of science approaching singular truth is no longer tenable, if science is to be useful in the coming age.”
(Allen et al. p.484)

Post-normal science highlights the importance of finding alternative ways for science to engage with both the problems faced in the contemporary world and the people living in that world. As they have been defined here, SESMs will inherently address questions that will be of concern to more than just scientists, including problems of the ‘risk society’. From a modelling perspective, a post-normal science approach highlights the need to build trust in the eyes of non-scientists such that understanding is fostered.

Further, it emphasises the need for SESMs to be practically adequate such that good decisions can be made promptly. It also implies that the manner in which a ‘normal’ scientist will go about assessing the trustworthiness or practical adequacy of a model (such as the methods described above) will differ markedly from that of a non-scientist. For example, scientific model users will often, but not always, have also been the person to develop and construct the model. In such a case the model will be constructed to ensure the model is practically adequate to address their particular scientific problems and questions.

When the model is to be used by other parties the issue of ensuring practical adequacy will not be so straight-forward, and particularly so when the user is a non-scientist. In such situations, the modeller needs to ask the question ‘practically adequate for what’? The inhabitants of the study areas investigated will have a vested interest in the processes being examined and will themselves have questions that could be addressed by the model. In all probability many of these questions will be ones that the modeller themselves has not considered or, if they have, may not have considered relevant. Further, the questions asked by local stakeholders may be non-scientific – or at least may be questions that environmental scientists are not used to attempting to answer.

The use and improvements in technical approaches (such a spatial error matrices from pixel-by-pixel model assessment) will remain useful and necessary in the future. Here however, I have emphasised potential alternative methods for model validation (assessment) might be useful to utilise the additional information and knowledge which is available from those actors driving change in a socio-ecological system. In other words, there is information within the system of study that is not utilised for model assessment by simply comparing observed and predicted system states. This information is present in the form of local stakeholders’ knowledge and experience.

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