Thursday, July 19, 2007

Virtual reality versus actuality

It used to be science was about creating hypotheses and then testing them with experiments or actual field observations, empirical data. When the data contradicted the predicted outcome and/or failed to sustain the conjecture, the data were taken at face value, as reality and the projections, the predictions, the hypotheses, were assumed to be in error, speculative, guesstimates.

But not so today. Today we have models. Models are correct in much the same way Marx was always correct, or the Bible or some self-appointed potentate or dictator. Total infallibility. But now with numbers. Big numbers.

Most people aren't very good at math: school taught them that. Suddenly around 11 to 14 most students are made to realize they are math stupid: can't be poor math instruction, just masses of kids don't get it and are math impaired. So later in life, all sorts of people can use numbers and a sheen of statistics and claim anything. And anything you want to claim can be verified with a model.

Here is a wonderful discussion of modelling, models and their abuse. It points out that:
  • The rise of models has coincided with the evaporation of the concept of human agency, of human beings consciously gaining and applying new insights through struggle.
  • Just a third of a century ago, when politics actually meant something, highly regarded analysts derided vapid computerisations of the future.
And asks the question:
  • Why have models taken on such importance in policymaking today? Whatever happened to the healthy scepticism that accompanied the portentous conclusions of models in the past?
It concludes that modern politics is characterized by a very low horizon:
  • With the IPCC, the modern computer modeller's work is complete. The conclusions are already there in the premises; but the presentation as the product of cold, logical number-crunching ensures that this work will brook no counter-argument.
An excellent essay. And it does conclude with an alternative, one many subscribe to: believe in your own experience and not the virtual reality of some model.