Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

Daily Archives: 02/02/2010

Compton on the limits of simulation

The international military history, news, and wargaming site GrogNews has an interesting post by noted professional wargamer/analyst Jon Compton on the limits of simulation:

Recently I attended a roundtable discussion on wargaming at one of our national war colleges. During the discussion, a distinguished practitioner of our art mentioned his conviction that wargames were, in fact, good predictive tools. This comment was quite controversial, and it ought to be. Throughout not just wargaming circles, but in the OR world in general there is much ado made about the ability to predict the future. The notion is cast in various terms and syntaxes, most frequently masquerading as anticipatory analysis or behavior.

When we look at both qualitative and quantitative points of view and techniques to gain some insight into how to anticipate the behaviors of adversaries, the level of complexity rapidly outstrips our capacity to account for it. Simplifications usually rely on the description of trends, or the subjectiveness of the subject matter expert. The critical assumption that we’ve taken for granted is that in order to understand what our adversary is going to do, we must understand his culture, his motivations, his environmental influences, and so forth. What we find with this approach is that the problem rapidly becomes intractable.

There are two governing issues. The first I call faith in the one-to-one map, the second is the fallacy of classical determinism. Faith in the one-to-one map is simply the belief that the closer a model gets to reality, ostensibly through the inclusion of as many governing variables and interactions as possible, the more accurate the predictions will be. In truth, this is likely to be an inaccurate correlation. In practice, this approach is simply ridiculous. The problem, of course, is that the amount and accuracy of data required in order to make such an approach feasible doesn’t, and is unlikely to ever, exist. But even if we were able to gather accurately all the necessary data and correctly put together all of the interactions in the system and we could then run experiments with our one-to-one mapping of the world, we still would not be able accurately predict adversarial behaviors. Why? Because the underlying assumption with the approach is that the universe behaves according to the tenets of classical determinism. And the problem with classical determinism is a very simple one: it assumes away random evolutionary variation and the existence of creativity. It also ignores such metaphorical but very real notions as Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle or the Lucas Critique….

You’ll find the full post here. Hat-top to BayonetBrant, via the Small Wars Council.

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