Thought, action and social-system models

I was asked by a journalist to comment on a paper. Here is an edited form of part of my response.

Thought evolved over evolutionary time to mediate between sensory perception and muscular action. Models are tools for thought, and help us to mediate between our perceptions and our actions.

Models are like crutches that allow our thinking to advance where it might otherwise be hobbled.

It would seem that recommendations of what sorts of modeling should be done should start with a discussion of what actions we are considering and what tools might be most helpful for informing decisions related to those actions, and then proceed to a discussion of the feasibility and resources needed to construct a model that could usefully inform decisions.

This question is particularly problematic when it comes to models involving social systems.

Clearly, there is some predictability to social systems: We can reliably predict that if political leaders engage in racially or religiously discriminatory speech that there will be an uptick in racial or religious violence within the society.

On the other hand, our primary goal is to inform decisions, not predict those decisions. We do not necessarily want to predict whether political leaders will engage in racially or religiously discriminatory speech, but rather inform the political leaders of the likely outcomes of their actions.

Further, while there is some predictive skill in predicting that increased prices will have a negative influence on demand, for example, the evidence of predictive skill for what we might call “future history” is limited at best.

There remains a major challenge in thinking through what sorts of models of social systems at global scale can usefully improve understanding and decision making at a cost that is commensurate with the value of generated information.