ABM and Theory development – pre-summer symposium

Like almost everyone else I closed my work projects for the summer, but before going on holiday I could spend a week thinking, listening and discussing the Agent-based modelling and theory development: a symposium called: from cases to general princicples – theory development through agent-based modelling [ www]. A topic close to home, as we have been talking over the last 7 years regularly about this theme and the role of our work BUT also we just had an internal sit-down for 3 days with the senior modellers here, Emilie Lindqvist, Romina Martin and Maja Schlüter) writing a paper exactly on this topic. Thus, super exciting thus to see what other groups are thinking of.
In short, the symposium (4-6 July) is a Volksvagen-stiftung funded event organised by Iris Lorscheid, Uta Berger, Volker Grimm and Matthias Meyer. For more details look at  their project website here http://abm-theory.org/.
The workshop was organised in such way that we didn’t only listen and discuss, we also would write things up around  a) the state of the art in agent-based modelling and theory building roughly the following schools of thought: ecology, management and social sciences; b) the experiences, approaches and ideas of researchers doing ABM and theory building,  c) the philosophy of science perspective on theory building through ABM, and d) identifying obstacles and of theory building.
My overall impression of the workshop was good because the base ingredients were right: a good mix of  people or the disciplines that were there, they were enthusiastic, critical and keen to engage with each other as well as a well structured and prepared event that allowed for this exchange of ideas to take place.
What I took away from this workshop was the following:
  • Theory development definition. What is very clear that theory is a container concept and is used for a lot of science activities with varying object, scope, testable/tested etc. This diversity or ambiguity of the word led to a discussion in which a wide variety was advocated for to make this container more clear by advocating for anything within the range of:  <not using the word -to- an intens need for deciding on a definition>. It was my impression that theory building was by most considered to be work on a generalor abstract theory.
  • Usefulness of ABM in science. Discussions often converged around what would make ABM more useful in science. Going to a more deeper issue in agent-based modelling as the method is not always easily accepted within disciplines for a variety of reasons. So many sub-discussions led to the need for clarity, transparency of model communication, the use of models and how it should be evaluated or validated. How much guidelines are needed but also when there are guidelines how much should they be forced to followed. Theory building in that case an very relevant means for making ABM’s contributions in science.
  • Model Myth busting. The invited speakers were all carefully selected and often had very though and discussion provoking talks. I particularly would like the highlight the talk by ‘Eckhart Arnold, Research without a cause: When models fail to be relevant’.He was very good in stressing how some general and famous models (e.g. by Axelrod and Schelling) that keep on being used while they fail to capture relevant aspects of the subject that they were meant to model. It was a proper mirror to our practices, how we stay unaware or maybe even ignore new evidence. Refining the discusion of usefulness, because a model may have been useful but should stop being used when proven not to be anymore. It was intriguing to observe the responses and may me wonder how active and brave we scientist/modellers are in our work to re-evaluate our models (sometimes almost being like our lovers).
Overall, this was the perfect closure of the first half of the year. I am looking forward to continue this discussion back at my home as well as at the Social Simulation conference coming up in a few weeks in Stockholm…