Model Thinking – models as the new Lingua Franca – notes from new online course by Scott E. Page

I’ve brought up the concept of models before. From the MIT online courses, I learned that programming is about mapping the world into something computational. I’ve had to do with models as part of the model-view-controller pattern in programming, and when modeling databases into objects. I’ve blogged about Bruce Schneier and the importance he gives to models, explaining how feelings are our interpretations based on intuitions, and models are based on reasoning, be it our own, or inherited. Models are important, and determine us a great deal, and it all influences our predictions, our decision making, our lives, presents and futures. Models influence both how we perceive our lives and feel while living them, and what actually happens to us based on the decisions we make and things we do.

Clearly I am very happy to be following a whole online course in model thinking and see where this serendipitous intuition can lead me and what it can teach me. I have discovered it when new Stanford free courses were announced, and it is taught by Scott E. Page.

I have a background both in computers and in social sciences, and models kind of fill the gap between them, linking them in a way I always felt was there. I like computers for computers’ sake, but playing with them and not going beyond that has never been enough for me. At the same time, when I would study something from other fields, I would find myself applying methods that programming has made a part of me. Model thinking helps me make sense of that, maybe. Scott E.Page himself is not a Computer Scientist, but a Professor of Complex Systems, Political Science, and Economics at the University of Michigan.

Clearly, the map is not the territory. And in the first two video lectures of the Model Thinking course Scott E. Page shares this quote with us:

“Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.”
George E.P. Box

Click “Continue reading” to learn something about what the models are good for.

So, what are models good for? They are “abstractions, simplifications, but they are going to be useful to us.” My intuition about models has been that they help us use our pattern recognition capabilities better and look behind the surface of things. They help us find similarities in things, and also differences, and patterns, and understand where things are going. When we make a model of something, we can play with it, change the variables, and get unexpected results. I hope this will make us less slaves of ideas and appearances, and more able to use ideas as tools and read behind appearances. I always hope the world might change for the better, and that people can think and feel and act in a more intelligent way. Maybe models will be a part of that, maybe not. “Most of human knowledge didn’t have models in them. Models are a relatively recent phenomenon.” “Models just make you a better thinker. The reason is that they just weed out a lot of logical inconsistencies.”

We are ever more immersed in a world of data. Scott E. Page’s Computer Scientist friends call it a “hairball of data”, and he suggests that models help to take that data, structure in information and turn it into knowledge (maybe in the end some wisdom). Since the 90s and the rise of Internet and Wired and stuff, I’ve been thinking about the famous T.S. Elliot quote “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” that I’ve read in those days when a lot of people wondered about such things and e-theory was fashionable. Who knows, maybe Model Thinking or something like that can help us take take that data, structure in information and turn it into knowledge (maybe in the end some wisdom), as Scott E. Page suggests.

The arguments that are going to be discussed in this course are such as:

* Collective Action
* Tipping Points
* Colonel Blotto
* Lyapunov Models
* Learning Models
* Wisdom of Crowds
* Markov Processes
* Spatial Voting
* Decision Theory
* Linear Models
* Economic Growth

Models are used in fields like:

* Business
* Politics
* Non-profit world
* (biology) video2
* (linguistics) video2

Models are becoming the new Lingua Franca of Academy, Business, Politics, Non-profit etc. and is used in fields like, biology, linguistics, etc. The Game Theory has models for all sorts of things.

Studies about predictions people make show that the worst ones are done by those who use only one model or no real model at all (called hedgehogs), decent ones by those who use many but in a loose way (foxes) and best ones by those who use formal models and many of them. This is from a book by Philip E. Tetlock.

Models also make us humble, “often as we construct models we get really different predictions than what we thought before.” They don’t make our decisions for us, but offer guidance and a bunch of different ways of looking at the world.

So, happy modeling then, and have fun learning.

About apprenticecoder

My blog is about me learning to program, and trying to narrate it in interesting ways. I love to learn and to learn through creativity. For example I like computers, but even more I like to see what computers can do for people. That's why I find web programming and scripting especially exciting. I was born in Split, Croatia, went to college in Bologna, Italy and now live in Milan. I like reading, especially non-fiction (lately). I'd like to read more poetry. I find architecture inspiring. Museums as well. Some more then others. Interfaces. Lifestyle magazines with interesting points of view. Semantic web. Strolls in nature. The sea.
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