Garbage in, garbage out: follow-ups

Having read my review of the book Useless Arithmetic, my co-blogger Michael Grinfeld has suggested I may still display too much faith in mathematical modelling. At his suggestion, here are a couple of links which might encourage further scepticism…

1. The Pseudoscience of Economics, from Zero Hedge: a pretty uncompromising attack on modelling in economics. (The article has also attracted a lengthy comment thread, some of which should be treated with extreme caution.) I’d also previously posted a link to a recent Radio 4 programme on the Black-Scholes formula and the financial crash, which is worth repeating here; and I can’t resist a plug for another article, What is Debt? (from Naked Capitalism) which certainly helped me realise how little I understood about the “facts” of economics.

2. In the light of my comments about meteorology being a relatively mature area of mathematical modelling, Michael has also called my attention to the Met Office’s 3-month outlook for April to June this year, issued on 23 March, which states that “the forecast for average UK rainfall slightly favours drier-than-average conditions for April-May-June as a whole, and also slightly favours April being the driest of the 3 months”. (This April was in fact the wettest on record.)

In fact, I’m not sure that such failed predictions undermine my point significantly: in the published outlook, note the careful phrasing, the wide spread of possibilities and the placing of models in the context of observations; and note the subsequent efforts to understand what went wrong — in this case, the fact that we still can’t accurately predict the behaviour of the jet stream seems to have had a lot to do with it. I’d argue that maturity in modelling doesn’t necessarily mean getting things right, or even refraining from trying to push the limits of what one can predict; it does mean making one’s predictions openly and verifiably, with appropriate disclaimers, and never overlooking one’s failures!


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