Coronavirus – Models or Crystal Balls

By | 15th April 2020

As far back as we have records, humans have tried to predict the future. Why? Because we want to know that we are doing the right thing in the present. Are our actions today going to have the desired results? Can we avert some hazard or danger by making an appropriate decision here and now? Some societies turn to prayer, divination or oracles. Others to tarot cards or crystal balls. In the modern world, much of that function is fulfilled by mathematical models. Is this new technology of forecasting really an upgrade?

It is important to stress that this does not mean that modelling exercises are invalid or useless. This would perpetuate the sociological nihilism of the 1960s and 1970s, when we first recognized the social construction of all quantitative data. However, it does mean that we need to understand how the numbers that go into models are created, for modellers to display a degree of humility about the inferences that can be drawn, and for policy-makers to use their own judgements about the consequences that might flow from them. As my friends in computer science say: ‘Garbage in, garbage out’.

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