Escape from Model Land How Mathematical Models Can Led Us Astray and What We Can Do About It, reviewed

We look at this new book by Erica Thompson, Escape from Model Land
How Mathematical Models Can Led Us Astray and What We Can Do About It. Hardback, £20.00, ISBN: 9781529364873, Basic Books UK, 24 November 2022

Escape from Model Land How Mathematical Models Can Led Us Astray and What We Can Do About It, reviewed

At times it can feel like progress and humanity are not on a solely upward journey. As species we have invented lots of amazing things, and achieved many great things, reducing infant mortality, deaths in childbirth, and increasing life expectancy. And yet in some countries these benefits have stalled or even fallen backwards. In many ways modelling scenarios was a helpful shorthand to work out potential solutions and answers to the best ways to help the most people.

However at the same time, if the model is not an accurate representation of what you are trying to model then errors can slip in. Naturally the challenge is that when is a model too minimal and too brief a representation of the problem you are trying to solve. At the other extreme, if you don’t make any reductions or assumptions, then your model is merely a facsimile and is not actually serving any purpose or saving any time. The author Erica Thompson explains this key question effectively and from there the book unfolds.

A thoughtful, timely and interesting book to read.

More about the book

From pandemic responses to tackling climate change, mathematical models increasingly affect our lives. But models can also lead us astray, and badly. How can we improve them and make better decisions?

Models are at the centre of everything we do. They became headline news as we navigated the COVID-19 pandemic and are helping us navigate the uncertainties of climate change. Whether we use them or are simply affected by them, they act as metaphors that help us better understand the increasingly complex problems facing us in the modern world.

Without models, we couldn’t begin to tackle three of the major challenges facing modern society: regulation of the economy, climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.

This book explains for the general reader, for the first time, what models are, how they work and why they matter.  It also sheds light on the debate over the validity of the models we use, and the disastrous consequences when the makers and interpreters of models get things wrong.

Erica Thompson shows how our current modelling system is inherently biased towards a particular view of the world, which can distort our thinking. Once we become aware of the limits of our models, we can improve them and be more critical when using them to make real-world policies.

Writing with passion and humour, Erica Thompson draws upon contemporary examples from finance, climate and health policy, to explore what models are, why we need them, how they work and what happens when they go wrong.

We shouldn’t do away with models, she argues, but we should better understand them and be aware how the assumptions that underlie our models can have significant unintended consequences.

More about the author

Erica Thompson is a senior policy fellow at the London School of Economics’ Data Science Institute and a fellow of the London Mathematical Laboratory. With a PhD from Imperial College, she has recently worked on the limitations of models of COVID-19 spread, humanitarian crises, and climate change. She lives in West Wales.

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