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Updating the Debate on Model Complexity
1 National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training, Flinders University, Adelaide SA, Australia
2 U.S. Geological Survey, 8505 Research Way, Middleton, Wisconsin 53562, USA
As scientists who are trying to understand a complex natural world that cannot be fully characterized in the field, how can we best inform the society in which we live? This founding context was addressed in a special session, “Complexity in Modeling: How Much is Too Much?” convened at the 2011 Geological Society of America Annual Meeting. The session had a variety of thought-provoking presentations—ranging from philosophy to cost-benefit analyses—and provided some areas of broad agreement that were not evident in discussions of the topic in 1998 (Hunt and Zheng, 1999). The session began with a short introduction during which model complexity was framed borrowing from an economic concept, the Law of Diminishing Returns, and an example of enjoyment derived by eating ice cream. Initially, there is increasing satisfaction gained from eating more ice cream, to a point where the gain in satisfaction starts to decrease, ending at a point when the eater sees no value in eating more ice cream. A traditional view of model complexity is similar—understanding gained from modeling can actually decrease if models become unnecessarily complex. However, oversimplified models—those that omit important aspects of the problem needed to make a good prediction—can also limit and confound our understanding. Thus, the goal of all modeling is to find the “sweet spot” of model sophistication—regardless of whether complexity was added sequentially to an overly simple model or collapsed from an initial highly parameterized framework that uses mathematics and statistics to attain an optimum (e.g., Hunt et al., 2007). Thus, holistic parsimony is attained, incorporating “as simple as possible,” as well as the equally important corollary “but no simpler.”
Manuscript received 18 Feb. 2012; accepted 21 May 2012.