Thursday, May 22, 2014

The politics of catastrophe models

The above infographic is taken from here- a article providing an interview with Karen Clark, a foremother of catastrophe modeling.

The image gives a general schematic of decision points for creating a catastrophe model.  At each point the model builder must make a choice of input or how to construct an input (such as how to construct a catalog of hypothetical events).  These choices can and do produce different outputs or rather, different estimates of risk.

Is one choice of an input better than another?  Well, it depends on what you are trying to accomplish.

The goodness of model input is justified by the desirability of its output.  Economist and Philosopher Marcel Boumans has likened the model building process to "baking a cake without a recipe,"
The ingredients are theoretical ideas, policy views, mathematisations of the cycle, metaphors and empirical facts… However, a recipe is not unique in the sense that it is the one and only way to integrate a certain set of ingredients.  Thus a new recipe is a manual for a successful integration of a new set of ingredients [emphasis in original].  
The recipe creation process ends when the baker (modeler) creates a cake (output) to his liking.

Ultimately, the risk we choose to model, accept and insure against are fully malleable.  This provides ample political opportunity to influence choice in the risk estimation and risk acceptability process.

Think about risk estimates as highly technical propaganda.  They represent specific political positions about what the future could look like given a certain set of assumptions.

This does not mean they are not useful for planning.  Certainly they are.   Which is where they derive power to influence decision making.

However, their specificity should be taken with a grain of salt.  While the model may foretell what the future may look like by a given perspective and his/her values and expert judgement, it certainly cannot tell you what to do about it.

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