Volume 22, Issue 2, 2018
Zachary Pirtle, Jay Odenbaugh, Andrew Hamilton, Zoe Szajnfarber
Engineering Model Independence
A Strategy to Encourage Independence Among Models
According to population biologist Richard Levins, every discipline has a “strategy of model building,” which involves implicit assumptions about epistemic goals and the types of abstractions and modeling approaches used. We will offer suggestions about how to model complex systems based upon a strategy focusing on independence in modeling. While there are many possible and desirable modeling strategies, we will contrast a model-independence-focused strategy with the more common modeling strategy of adding increasing levels of detail to a model. Levins calls the latter approach a ‘brute force’ strategy of modeling, which can encounter problems as it attempts to add increasing details and predictive precision. In contrast, a model-independence-focused strategy, which we call a ‘pluralistic strategy,’ draws off of Levins’s use of an assemblage of multiple, simple and—critically—independent models of ecological systems in order to do predictive and explanatory analysis. We use the example of model analysis of levee failure during Hurricane Katrina to show what a pluralistic strategy looks like in engineering. Depending on one’s strategy, one can deliberately engineer the set of available models in order to have more independent and complementary models that will be more likely to be accurate. We offer advice on ways of making models independent as well as a set of epistemic goals for model development that different models can emphasize.