How Much of the World Is It Possible to Model?

Article by Dan Rockmore: “…Modelling, in general, is now routine. We model everything, from elections to economics, from the climate to the coronavirus. Like model cars, model airplanes, and model trains, mathematical models aren’t the real thing—they’re simplified representations that get the salient parts right. Like fashion models, model citizens, and model children, they’re also idealized versions of reality. But idealization and abstraction can be forms of strength. In an old mathematical-modelling joke, a group of experts is hired to improve milk production on a dairy farm. One of them, a physicist, suggests, “Consider a spherical cow.” Cows aren’t spheres any more than brains are jiggly sponges, but the point of modelling—in some ways, the joy of it—is to see how far you can get by using only general scientific principles, translated into mathematics, to describe messy reality.

To be successful, a model needs to replicate the known while generalizing into the unknown. This means that, as more becomes known, a model has to be improved to stay relevant. Sometimes new developments in math or computing enable progress. In other cases, modellers have to look at reality in a fresh way. For centuries, a predilection for perfect circles, mixed with a bit of religious dogma, produced models that described the motion of the sun, moon, and planets in an Earth-centered universe; these models worked, to some degree, but never perfectly. Eventually, more data, combined with more expansive thinking, ushered in a better model—a heliocentric solar system based on elliptical orbits. This model, in turn, helped kick-start the development of calculus, reveal the law of gravitational attraction, and fill out our map of the solar system. New knowledge pushes models forward, and better models help us learn.

Predictions about the universe are scientifically interesting. But it’s when models make predictions about worldly matters that people really pay attention.We anxiously await the outputs of models run by the Weather Channel, the Fed, and Models of the stock market guide how our pension funds are invested; models of consumer demand drive production schedules; models of energy use determine when power is generated and where it flows. Insurers model our fates and charge us commensurately. Advertisers (and propagandists) rely on A.I. models that deliver targeted information (or disinformation) based on predictions of our reactions.

But it’s easy to get carried away..(More)”