Review of "Escape from Model Land. How Mathematical Models Can Lead Us Astray and What We Can Do About It"

A review by Bruce Edmonds of “Escape from Model Land by Erica Thompson”. Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation Jan 2022.

Occasionally a book comes along that illuminates an issue in a new way with convincing conceptual clarity – this is not such a book. Rather, it is a wide-ranging critique on the practice and use of models as and when it influences policy. It is thus to be recommended to all involved in the modelling-policy interface as an introduction to some of the pitfalls and biases that can occur.

It starts with an accessible introduction to the world of modelling and some of its difficulties/pitfalls. It then looks at three areas in more detail: financial trading, climate change and disease spread. Its main conclusion is that there are two routes to “escape” from the internal world of modelling: the quantitative route (for empirically well-validated models), and the qualitative one (where the understanding gained from modelling should be treated on a par with other expertise). It is packed with valid critique concerning how models are made, checked and used in the context of policy, ranging over many different aspects and issues. It ends with a particularly useful list of questions for policy actors and stakeholders to ask of modellers that extends and deepens previous lists, such as that in Calder et al. (2018).

However, I found this book a frustrating read. Although it comes to many of the same conclusions that Lia Adoha and I did (Adoha & Edmonds 2017), I found it tended to overgeneralise and conflate some of the issues. For clarity, I have organised my critique of the book into three areas: not separating more general critiques applicable to all kinds of representation from those specific to modelling, not sufficiently distinguishing different kinds of modelling, and the book’s overly rosy view of human discursive consideration. I now look at these in turn.

Full review at: