So, here’s an interesting thought that came up the the Michael Jackson festschrift yesterday. Michael commented in his talk that understanding is not a state, it’s a process. David Notkin then asked how we can know how well we’re doing in that process. I suggested that one of the ways you know is by discovering where your understanding is incorrect, which can happen if your model surprises you. I noticed this is a basic mode of operation for earth system modelers. They put their current best understanding of the various earth systems (atmosphere, ocean, carbon cycle, atmospheric chemistry, soil hydrology, etc) into a coupled simulation model and run it. Whenever the model surprises them, they know they’re probing the limits of their understanding. For example, the current generation of models at the Hadley centre don’t get the Indian Monsoon in the right place at the right time. So they know there’s something in that part of the model they don’t yet understand sufficiently.

Contrast this with the way we use (and teach) modeling in software engineering. For example, students construct UML models as part of a course in requirements analysis. They hand in their models, and we grade them. But at no point in the process do the models ever surprise their authors. UML models don’t appear to have the capacity for surprise. Which is unfortunate, given what the students did in previous courses. In their programming courses, they were constantly surprised. Their programs didn’t compile. Then they didn’t run. Then they kept crashing. Then they gave the wrong outputs. At every point, the surprise is a learning opportunity, because it means there was something wrong with their understanding, which they have to fix. This contrast explains a lot about the relative value students get from programming courses versus software modeling courses.

Now of course, we do have some software engineering modeling frameworks that have the capacity for surprise. They allow you to create a model and play with it, and sometimes get unexpected results. For example, Alloy. And I guess model checkers have that capacity too. A necessary condition is that you can express some property that your model ought to have, and then automatically check that it does have it. But that’s not sufficient, because if the properties you express aren’t particularly interesting, or are trivially satisifed, you still won’t be surprised. For example, UML syntax checkers fall into this category – when your model fails a syntax check, that’s not surprising, it’s just annoying. Also, you don’t necessarily have to formally state the properties – but you do have to at least have clear expectations. When the model doesn’t meet those expectations, you get the surprise. So surprise isn’t just about executability, it’s really about falsifiability.

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