For infectious disease dynamical models to inform policy for containment of infectious diseases the models must be able to predict; however, it is well recognised that such prediction will never be perfect. Nevertheless, the consensus is that although models are uncertain, some may yet inform effective action. This assumes that the quality of a model can be ascertained in order to evaluate sufficiently model uncertainties, and to decide whether or not, or in what ways or under what conditions, the model should be ‘used’. We examined uncertainty in modelling, utilising a range of data: interviews with scientists, policy-makers and advisors, and analysis of policy documents, scientific publications and reports of major inquiries into key livestock epidemics. We show that the discourse of uncertainty in infectious disease models is multi-layered, flexible, contingent, embedded in context and plays a critical role in negotiating model credibility. We argue that usability and stability of a model is an outcome of the negotiation that occurs within the networks and discourses surrounding it. This negotiation employs a range of discursive devices that renders uncertainty in infectious disease modelling a plastic quality that is amenable to ‘interpretive flexibility’. The utility of models in the face of uncertainty is a function of this flexibility, the negotiation this allows, and the contexts in which model outputs are framed and interpreted in the decision making process. We contend that rather than being based predominantly on beliefs about quality, the usefulness and authority of a model may at times be primarily based on its functional status within the broad social and political environment in which it acts.
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