What is the point… of social simulation modelling?

Previously, I mentioned a thread on SIMSOC initiated by Scott Moss. He asked ‘Does anyone know of a correct, real-time, [agent] model-based, policy-impact forecast?. Following on to the responses to that question, earlier this week he started a new thread entitled ‘What’s the Point?:

“We already know that economic recessions and recoveries have probably never been forecast correctly — at least no counter-examples have been offered. Similarly, no financial market crashes or recoveries or significant shifts in market shares have ever, as far as we know, been forecast correctly in real time.

I believe that social simulation modelling is useful for reasons I have been exploring in publications for a number of years. But I also recognise that my beliefs are not widely held.

So I would be interested to know why other modellers think that modelling is useful or, if not useful, why they do it.”

After reading others’ responses I decided to reply with my own view:

“For me prediction of the future is only one facet of modelling (whether agent-based or any other kind) and not necessarily the primary use, especially with regards policy modelling. This view stems party from the philosophical difficulties outlined by Oreskes et al. (1994), amongst others. I agree with Mike that the field is still in the early stages of development, but I’m less confident about ever being able to precisely predict future systems states in the open systems of the ‘real world’. As Pablo suggested, if we are to predict the future the inherent uncertainties will be best highlighted and accounted for by ensuring predictions are tied to a probability.”

I also highlighted the reasons offered by Epstein and outlined a couple of other reasons I think ABM are useful.

There was a brief response to mine then and then another, more assertive, response that (I think) highlights a common confusion of the different uses of prediction in modelling:

“If models of economic policy are fundamentally unable to at some point predict the effects of policy — that is, to in some measure predict the future — then, to be blunt, what good are they? If they are unable to be predictive then they have no empirical, practical, or theoretical value. What’s left? I ask that in all seriousness.

Referring to Epstein’s article, if a model is not sufficiently grounded to show predictive power (a necessary condition of scientific results), then how can it be said to have any explanatory power? Without prediction as a stringent filter, any amount of explanation from a model becomes equivalent to a “just so” story, at worst giving old suppositions the unearned weight of observation, and at best hitting unknowably close to the mark by accident. To put that differently, if I have a model that provides a neat and tidy explanation of some social phenomena, and yet that model does not successfully replicate (and thus predict) real-world results to any degree, then we have no way of knowing if it is more accurate as an explanation than “the stars made it happen” or any other pseudo-scientific explanation. Explanations abound; we have never been short of them. Those that can be cross-checked in a predictive fashion against hard reality are those that have enduring value.

But the difficulty of creating even probabalistically predictive models, and the relative infancy of our knowledge of models and how they correspond to real-world phenomena, should not lead us into denying the need for prediction, nor into self-justification in the face of these difficulties. Rather than a scholarly “the dog ate my homework,” let’s acknowledge where we are, and maintain our standards of what modeling needs to do to be effective and valuable in any practical or theoretical way. Lowering the bar (we can “train practitioners” and “discipline policy dialogue” even if we have no way of showing that any one model is better than another) does not help the cause of agent-based modeling in the long run.

I felt this required a response – it seemed to me that difference between logical prediction and temporal prediction was being missed:

“In my earlier post I wrote: “I’m less confident about ever being able to precisely predict future systems states in the open systems of the ‘real world'”. I was careful about how I worded this [more careful than ensuring correct formatting of the post it seems – my original post is below in a more human-readable format] and maybe some clarification in the light of Mike’s comments would be useful. Here goes…

Precisely predicting the future state of an ‘open’ system at a particular instance in time does not imply we have explained or understand it (due to the philosophical issues of affirming the consequent, equifinality, underdetermination, etc.). To be really useful for explanation and to have enduring value model predictions of any system need to be cross-checked against hard reality *many times*, and in the case of societies probably also in many places (and should ideally be produced by models that are consistent with other theories). Producing multiple accurate predictions will be particularly tricky for things like the global economy for which only have one example (but of course will be easier where experimental replication more ogistically feasible).

My point is two-fold:
1) a single, precise prediction of a future does not really mean much with regard our understanding of an open system,
2) multiple precise predictions are more useful but will be more difficult to come by.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that we will never be able to consistently predict the future of open systems (in Scott’s sense of correctly forecasting of the timing and direction of change of specified indicators). I just think it’s a ways off yet, that there will always be uncertainty, and that we need to deal with this uncertainty explicitly via probabilistic output from model ensembles and other methods.Rather than lowering standards, a heuristic use of models demands we think more closely about *how* we model and what information we provide to policy makers (isn’t that the point of modelling policy outcomes in the end?).

Let’s be clear, the heuristic use of models does not allow us to ignore the real world – it still requires us to compare our model output with empirical data. And as Mike rightly pointed out, many of Epstein’s reasons to model – other than to predict – require such comparisons. However, the scientific modelling process of iteratively comparing model output with empirical data and then updating our models is a heuristic one – it does not require that precise prediction at specific point in the future is the goal before all others.

Lowering any level of standards will not help modelling – but I would argue that understanding and acknowledging the limits of using modelling in different situations in the short-term will actually help to improve standards in the long run. To develop this understanding we need to push models and modelling to their limits to find our what works, what we can do and what we can’t – that includes iteratively testing the temporal predictions of models. Iteratively testing models, understanding the philosophical issues of attempting to model social systems, exploring the use of models and modelling qualitatively (as a discussant, and a communication tool, etc.) should help modellers improve the information, the recommendations, and the working relationships they have with policy-makers.

In the long run I’d argue that both modellers and policy-makers will benefit from a pragmatic and pluralistic approach to modelling – one that acknowledges there are multiple approaches and uses of models and modelling to address societal (and environmental) questions and problems, and that [possibly self evidently] in different situations different approaches will be warranted. Predicting the future should not be the only goal of modelling social (or environmental) systems and hopefully this thread will continue to throw up alternative ideas for how we can use models and the process of modelling.”

Note that I didn’t explicitly point out the difference between the two different uses of prediction (that Oreskes and other have previously highlighted). It took Dan Olner a couple of posts later to explicitly describe the difference:

“We need some better words to describe model purpose. I would distinguish two –

a. Forecasting (not prediction) – As Mike Sellers notes, future prediction is usually “inherently probabalistic” – we need to know whether our models can do any better than chance, and how that success tails off as time passes. Often when we talk about “prediction” this is what we mean – prediction of a more-or-less uncertain future. I can’t think of a better word than forecasting.

b. Ontological prediction (OK, that’s two words!) – a term from Gregor Betz, Prediction Or Prophecy (2006). He gives the example of the prediction of Neptune’s existence from Newton’s laws – Uranus’ orbit implied that another body must exist. Betz’s point is that an ontological prediction is “timeless” – the phenomenon was always there. Einstein’s predictions about light bending near the sun is another: something that always happened, we just didn’t think to look for it. (And doubtless Eddington wouldn’t have considered *how* to look, without the theory.)

In this sense forecasting (my temporal prediction) is distinctly temporal (or spatial) and demands some statement about when (or where) an event or phenomena will occur. In contrast, ontological prediction (my logical prediction) is independent of time and/or space and is often used in closed system experiments searching for ‘universal’ laws. I wrote more about this in a series of blog posts I wrote a while back on the validation of models of open systems.

This discussion is ongoing on SIMSOC and Scott Moss has recently posted again suggesting a summary of the early responses:

“I think a perhaps extreme summary of the common element in the responses to my initial question (what is the point?, 9/6/09) is this:

**The point of modelling is to achieve precision as distinct from accuracy.**

That is, a model is a more or less complicated formal function relating a set of inputs clearly to a set of outputs. The formal inputs and outputs should relate unambiguously to the semantics of policy discussions or descriptions of observed social states and/or processes.

This precision has a number of virtues including the reasons for modelling listed by Josh Epstein. The reasons offered by Epstein and expressed separately by Lynne Hamill in her response to my question include the bounding and informing of policy discussions.

I find it interesting that most of my respondents do not consider accuracy to be an issue (though several believe that some empirically justified frequency or even probability distributions can be produced by models). And Epstein explicitly avoids using the term validation in the sense of confirmation that a model in some sense accurately describes its target phenomena.

So the upshot of all this is that models provide a kind of socially relevant precision. I think it is implicit in all of the responses (and the Epstein note) that, because of the precision, other people should care about the implications of our respective models. This leads to my follow-on questions:

Is precision a good enough reason for anyone to take seriously anyone else’s model? If it is not a good enough reason, then what is?

And so arises the debate about the importance of accuracy over precision (but the original ‘What is the point’ thread continues also). In hindsight, I think it may have been more appropriate for me to use the word accurate than precise in my postings. All this debate may seem to be just semantics and navel-gazing to many people, but as I argued in my second post, understanding the underlying philosophical basis of modelling and representing reality (however we might measure or perceive it) gives us a better chance of improving models and modelling in the long run…

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