I thought I would highlight a recent video presentation by Eric Winsberg, called Moral Models, Crucial Decisions in the Age of Computer Simulations. Some may remember that Eric co-wrote a post here about extreme weather event attribution.
The theme of Eric’s presentation is the moral significance of models and their influence on society. Eric makes a number of points that I largely agree with. A key point is that science doesn’t make decisions, people do. Models can inform decision making, but can’t define it.
Eric focuses particularly on the models used to understand the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Eric is rather critical of some of the modelling, in particular the influential Imperial College model. Eric highlights that some of the early models didn’t do much in the way of sensitivity tests and didn’t really consider the broader implications of their assumed interventions. I’m aware of an attempt to do a sensitivity analysis of the Imperial College model, but I didn’t think it was particularly useful.
What Eric stresses is that the assumptions that go into these models are not value-free. For example, in the case of COVID modelling, modellers will need to decide which potential interventions to consider, and they can almost certainly not do this in an entirely value-free way. What Eric suggests is that the modellers should have given more thought to how the interventions they chose to consider might influence other sectors of society, in particular those sectors with which the modellers probably have no association.
Eric also criticised the models for not considering the broader implications of the potential interventions. How would closing schools influence school children, and their parents? How would closing sectors of the economy influence those who might not be able to easily work from home? etc. Although these are perfectly valid concerns, this is where I somewhat disagree with Eric.
I think it’s very challenging to self-consistently include these impacts in the models and this may well go beyond what these models are designed to do, or should even try to do. Also, I think these are issues that policy makers should be aware of. They should be getting advice from other experts about the economic, and social, impacts of the various possible strategies. I do think we should be careful of suggesting that it was the responsibility of the modellers to provide this broader perspective.
However, I do think that modellers should be as clear as possible about the limitations of their models. This is partly simply because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it’s key to stress that models only inform decision making, not define it. If I was ever in a position to provide advice to policy makers, I would be pretty worried if I thought their decisions were based only on the information I presented. I would want policy makers to be informed by a broad range of experts. It’s key, in my view, to stress that the responsibility for making decisions lies with them, not with modellers/scientists.
Anyway, as usual I’ve written more than I had intended. Eric’s video presentation is below. Even if you don’t agree with it all, it certainly presents some ideas that are worth thinking about.