Issue 1 Science Shoutout

The Model Thinker

🕒 3 min

“All models are wrong, but some are useful.”

George Box, one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century

Science aims to explain the world around us by creating models of phenomena we see and encounter. Newton’s laws of motion, Bernoulli’s principle, the Krebs cycle; all of those are models. The world, however, is a complex place and, to discover its natural laws, scientists often have to simplify it. This is perhaps best illustrated in the spherical cow metaphor:

Milk production at a dairy farm was low, so the farmer wrote to the local university, asking for help from academia. A multidisciplinary team of professors was assembled, headed by a theoretical physicist, and two weeks of intensive on-site investigation took place. The scholars then returned to the university, notebooks crammed with data, where the task of writing the report was left to the team leader. Shortly thereafter the physicist returned to the farm, saying to the farmer, “I have the solution, but it works only in the case of spherical cows in a vacuum”.

How many times has your physics professor put things in a vacuum to explain something to you?

Now, think back to your time at the Summer School. No matter which project you participated in, all you did was the following: you designed some experiments to collect data and then analysed it. The last step of analysing the data is what produces the model, a new piece of knowledge.

Though all models are wrong, being able to construct a model from raw data is one of the most useful skills one can obtain. Though models do not capture every detail of a phenomenon, they are essential for making decisions as they capture the important parts of the world. Not only natural scientists use models to explain the world, so do many others: psychologists and sociologists use them to describe human behaviour; economists and governments use them to shape their decisions; medical doctors use them to dose various medicines, and football coaches use them to find the best players for their teams. In the end, this is what we teach you at the Summer School.

The Model Thinker, a book by renowned complex systems scientist Scott Page, will show you how knowing a few useful models can help you face the complexity of the real world and even make it a better place. In the book, Page advocates for what is known as many-model thinking: a complex phenomenon, be it natural or social, is better explained with an ensemble of models rather than a single one. Moreover, Page argues that a small set of diverse models, in an ensemble, explains a large majority of phenomena we encounter. The key to being an effective thinker is to excel at not only understanding these models but also applying known models in new situations. For instance, a contagion model explaining how infectious diseases (such as COVID-19) spread also explains the success of marketing strategies and the influence of gossip. What this book gives you is a set of twenty-five such models.

Using these general models, Page explains how we can gain a deeper understanding of the situations we frequently encounter – many of them so common that we never thought we needed an explanation for them. The book will explain why we use juries in courts; why the sizes of cities differ so much and why the biggest cities grow the fastest; how collaboration arises and why it produces better outcomes for everyone; why we prepare for some unlikely events (like earthquakes) and not for others; why big-money donations never solve big problems in the long run, and many more. If these questions intrigue you, The Model Thinker will not disappoint you!

By Sebastijan Dumančić

Sebastijan is a computer scientist working on Artificial intelligence, teaching machines how to think and learn. Sebastijan has been an active member of S3 since 2012.

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