Science Fictions

What’s happened to this blog recently? I used to write things like this and this. All I seem to have posted recently are rather vacuous posts about website updates and TV shows I haven’t watched (yet).

Well, one thing that has prevented me from posting recently has been that I’ve spent some of my spare time (i.e., when I’m not at work teaching or having fun with data manipulation and analysis for the UP modelling project) working on a long-overdue manuscript.

Whilst I was visiting at the University of Auckland back in 2005, David O’Sullivan, George Perry and I started talking about the benefits of simulation modelling over less-dynamic forms of modelling (such as statistical modelling). Later that summer I presented a paper at the Royal Geographical Society Annual Conference that arose from these discussions. We saw this as our first step toward writing a manuscript for publication in a peer review journal. Unfortunately, this paper wasn’t at the top of our priorities, and whilst on occasions since I have tried to sit down to write something coherent, it has only been this month [three years later!] that I have managed to finish a first draft.

Our discussions about the ‘added value’ of simulation modelling have focused on the narrative properties of of this scientific tool. The need for narratives in scientific fields that deal with ‘historical systems’ has been recognised by several authors previously (e.g. Frodeman in Geology), and in his 2004 paper on Complexity Science and Human Geography, David suggested that there was room, if not a need, for greater reference to the narrative properties of simulation modelling.

What inspired me to actually sit down and write recently was some thinking and reading I had been doing related to the course I’m teaching on Systems Modelling and Simulation. In particular, I was re-acquainting myself with Epstein’s idea of ‘Generative Social Science‘ to explain the emergence of macroscopic societal regularities (such as norms or price equilibria) arising from the local interaction of heterogeneous, autonomous agents. The key tool for the generative social scientist is agent-based simulation that considers the local interactions of heterogeneous, autonomous agents acting in a spatially-explicit environment and possessing bounded (i.e. imperfect) information and computing power. The aim of the generative social scientist is to ‘grow’ (i.e. generate) the observed macroscopic regularity from the ‘bottom up’. In fact, for Epstein this is the key to explanation – the demonstration of a micro-specification (properties or rules of agent interactions and change) able generate the macroscopic regularity of interest is a necessary condition for explanation. Describing the final aggregate characteristics and effects of these processes without accounting for how they arose due to the interactions of the agents is insufficient in the generativist approach.

As I was reading I was reminded of the recent suggestion of the potential of a Generative Landscape Science. Furthermore, the generative approach really seemed to ring true to the critical realist perspective of investigating the world – understanding that regularity does not imply causation and explanation is achieved by identifying causal mechanisms, how they work, and under what conditions they are activated.

Thus, in the paper (or the first draft I’ve written at least – no doubt it will take on several different forms before we submit for publication!) after discussing the characteristics of the ‘open, middle-numbered’ systems that we study in the ‘historical sciences’, reviewing Epstein’s generative social science and presenting examples of the application of generative simulation modelling (i.e., discrete element or agent-based) to land use/cover change, I go on to dicuss how a narrative approach might complement quantitative analysis of these models. Specifically, I look at how narratives could (and do) aid model explanation and interpretation, and the communication of these findings to others, and how the development of narratives will help to ‘open up’ the process of model construction for increased scrutiny.

In one part of this discussion I touch upon the keynote speech given by William Cronon at the RGS annual meeting in 2006 about the need for ‘sustainable narratives‘ of the current environmental issues we are facing as a global society. I also briefly look at how narrative might act as mediators between models and society (related to calls for ‘extended peer communities‘ and the like), and highlight where some of the potential problems for this narrative approach lie.

Now, as I’ve only just [!] finished this very rough initial draft, I’m going to leave the story of this manuscript here. David and George are going to chew over what I’ve written for a while and then it will be back to me to try to draw it all together again. As we progress on this iterative writing process, and the story becomes clearer, I’ll add another chapter here on the blog.

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