Why mathematical models are so often wrong, and how we can make better decisions by accepting their limits
Whether we are worried about the spread of COVID-19 or making a corporate budget, we depend on mathematical models to help us understand the world around us every day. But models aren’t a mirror of reality. In fact, they are fantasies, where everything works out perfectly, every time. And relying on them too heavily can hurt us.
In Escape from Model Land, statistician Erica Thompson illuminates the hidden dangers of models. She demonstrates how models reflect the biases, perspectives, and expectations of their creators. Thompson shows us why understanding the limits of models is vital to using them well. A deeper meditation on the role of mathematics, this is an essential book for helping us avoid either confusing the map with the territory or throwing away the map completely, instead pointing to more nuanced ways to Escape from Model Land.
About the Author
Erica Thompson is a senior policy fellow at the London School of Economics’ Data Science Institute and a fellow of the London Mathematical Laboratory. With a PhD from Imperial College, she has recently worked on the limitations of models of COVID-19 spread, humanitarian crises, and climate change. She lives in West Wales.
“Escape from Model Land offers a contemplative, densely encapsulated summary of her reflection and research... Ms. Thompson emphatically counsels not abstinence but discipline and humility… But it’s up to us to learn from models without being drawn in by their seductive elegance, and to ensure that the lessons from Model Land find substantive expression where it actually matters: in our messy, material, magnificent world” —Wall Street Journal
"[A] highly engaging work of popular science, in which accessibility to the ideas is given priority over academic muscle-flexing."—Engineering & Technology
“Math-based models have become the secret machinery of our society, and this book draws back the curtain for a close look…. A complex subject rendered in accessible terms, with good advice for using models without drowning in data.”—Kirkus (starred)
"An eye-opening account of the limits and uses of mathematical models... a thoughtful, convincing look at how data works."—Publishers Weekly (starred)
“Data, computing power, AI, and the models that use them will continue to proliferate. The wisdom, life experience, and humility to make the best use of those powerful tools will remain scarce. This delightfully wide-ranging book offers heaps of the latter to help us generate genuine insights from the former.”—Charles J. Wheelan, New York Times-bestselling author of Naked Statistics
“A brilliant account of how models are so often abused and of how they should be used.”—John Kay, author of Other People’s Money
“Escape from Model Land demystifies the process of making the mathematical models that are increasingly used to make decisions about our lives, from the financial markets to the pandemic to climate change. A thought-provoking and helpful guide for data scientists and decision makers alike.”—Stephanie Hare, author of Technology Is Not Neutral
“A wise, lucid and compelling guide to how mathematical modelling shapes our world. Thompson teaches us how to go from being unthinking consumers of models to sophisticated users, combining a rich variety of vivid examples and case studies with deep conceptual expertise, presented in a lively and accessible way.”—Stian Westlake, CEO, Royal Statistical Society