“After all, it’s only a model.” I suspect most mathematical modelers have heard these words. And with that put-down, thousands of hours of highly skilled work and a huge amount of useful knowledge goes down the drain.
Mathematical modeling is a highly technical field. You take a physical system and express how it behaves in terms of equations. You fit parameters to those equations, and run different alternatives. Then, you convert the mathematics back to conclusions about the physical world. Geek heaven! And, that’s exactly the problem. The typical decision maker, and certainly the average person, has no good way of knowing whether to believe a mathematical model. It’s too far removed from their knowledge system. Trust the scientists? Maybe, but not usually the case, especially where the model tells them something they really don’t want to hear.
The solution, then, is to build trust based on some degree of understanding. That’s exactly what collaborative modeling tries to do. Guest Associate Editors Elizabeth Bourget, Stacy Langsdale, and Marjan van den Belt have put together a featured collection, “Collaborative Modeling for Decision Support as a Tool to Implement IWRM.” They note, “Distilled to its essence, collaborative modeling is building models with rather than for participants.” The papers in the featured collection show how trust is built in a gradual process of technical and political participants interacting.
This featured collection originated from the June 2011 AWRA Summer Specialty Conference, “Integrated Water Resources Management: The Emperor’s New Clothes or Indispensable Process?” The conference featured a full-day symposium on Collaborative Modeling for Decision Support as a tool to implement IWRM, convened by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Institute for Water Resources, Sandia National Laboratories, and the U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution.
In addition to a transcript of the conference keynote address by Jerome Delli Priscoli, eight papers explore and critically discuss the appropriateness of Collaborative Modeling for Decision Support as a means of doing Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM). The objective is to: (1) develop an understanding of how applications of the method vary in different contexts around the world, and to (2) identify commonalities that inform and build a set of common best practices.
I think the collection hits its mark. As I read through the drafts, I realized, here is a way around the “only a model” conrundrum. There are practical solutions in these papers, and sometimes they work. To me, this could herald a whole new relationship between modelers and those needing the results of models. As Rick said to Captain Renault, “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”