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The Importance of Model Thinking

datePosted on 14 June 2012 by cjf

Models can help us understand, predict, strategize, and re-design our worlds. This is the profound lesson from Scott E. Page’s engaging on-line Coursera offering on Model Thinking. I was particularly interested in this 10 week course because Buckminster Fuller instilled in me a deep appreciation for models. With this course, Scott Page reinforced and enhanced that appreciation in spades. Also, like Bucky, Page makes his penetrating approach accessible to a very broad audience. This is a great course for anyone with even rudimentary algebra skills.

In addition to reviewing the course, I will also suggest that model thinking is a new more incisive kind of science. This approach and its nascent toolkit for understanding, decision-making, prediction, strategy, and design is vitally important for practitioners of all types. Model thinking may be just the type of tool humanity needs to solve some of its thorniest problems. As such its arrival into broader consciousness is not a moment too soon!

So if you want to be out there helping to change the world in useful ways, it’s really really helpful to have some understanding of models.
— Scott E. Page

Why Model Thinking

There are many ways to model the world. One of the most popular is with proverbs or short pithy sayings (our modern media seem to particularly love this deeply flawed “sound bite” approach to knowledge). As Scott Page points out, there are opposite proverbs too. For instance, the opposite of “nothing ventured, nothing gained” is “better safe than sorry.” Proverbs and their more elaborate cousins, allegories, can model or represent the world with persuasive stories, but they provide little discerning power and little basis for deeper understanding. In contradistinction, model thinking with its greater concern for precision can help us more carefully distinguish a complex of important factors with their interrelationships and behaviors. Therein lies its power!

Is intuition sufficient? No! Philip Tetlock, Robyn Dawes and others have demonstrated that simple naive models outperform experts of all stripes. In 1979 Dawes wrote a seminal paper, The Robust Beauty of Improper Linear Models in Decision Making, which showed the effectiveness of even “improper” linear models in outperforming human prognostication. Tetlock has made the most ambitious and extensive study of experts to date and finds that crude extrapolation models outperform humans in every domain he has studied.

That is not to say that models are “right”. Page emphasizes that all models are “wrong” too! Which leads to his most profound insight in the course: you need many types of models to help think through the logic of any given situation. Each model can help check, validate, and build your understanding. This depth of understanding is essential to make better decisions or predictions or build more effective designs or develop more effective strategies to achieve your goals.

Is intuition important? Yes, absolutely! The many model thinker relies upon intuition to select and critically evaluate a battery of models or to construct new or modified models when appropriate. These models help test our intuition. Intuition helps tests the models! Writing out a model often identifies facets and elements of the situation which intuition misses. Intuition is essential to find the aspects of the models that are a bit off the mark — and all models are a bit off. Model thinking is not “flying on instruments” or turning control over to mathematical or computer models. Instead it is about evaluating and comparing diverse models to test, build, fortify, and correct our intuitions, decisions, predictions, designs, and strategies.

Fascinating Models

Page’s course is filled to the brim with fascinating models! One of the first models Page introduces is Thomas Schelling’s segregation model which represents people as agents on a checkerboard. We discover deep and unexpected insights about how people sort themselves into clusters where everyone looks alike, for example, the segregation of neighborhoods based on race, ethnicity, income, etc. It is the first of many agent-based models to be discussed.

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Since databases are a fundamental component of modern information systems, understanding at least their basics is essential knowledge for almost all citizens. Please read my review of Stanford’s excellent free on-line course Introduction to Databases which is posted on the blog Managing FOSS for Business Results at

Please let me know what you think of it.

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EEB 122:  Principles of Evolution, Ecology, and BehaviorEach of us is connected through our parents and their parents and so forth to a first life form which has no parent and is composed and derived from non-biological forms. So each of us is intimately connected through our genealogical history to the non-biological Universe! Indeed, each of us is connected in this way to the whole Universe!!! It is this type of conceptual, big picture thinking that pervades Stephen Stearns’ free video course EEB 122: Principles of Evolution, Ecology, and Behavior at Open Yale Courses (OYC). Even though I do not think the separation between life and non-life is as clearcut as Stearns suggests, Jeannie and I thoroughly enjoyed our excursion into Biology with Stephen Stearns as our guide at OYC!

The Importance of Biology, Evolution, Ecology, and Behavior

Understanding biology is essential as civilization is inseparable from the great ecosystems upon which it is built and in which it is housed. Our future is inextricably linked to the always changing nature of the Earth-Biosphere system which provides our food and shelter. In EEB 122, we learned that the entire Earth has been sculpted by the biological technology we call “life“. At a more day-to-day human scale, medicine and health care are vital subjects in biology and in our economy (caring for the health of the ecosystem of cells, organs and their microscopic cohabitators known as “human” engages 9% of the economies in most OECD countries and nearly twice that in the USA). EEB 122 has a whole lecture devoted to medicine and more comments throughout the course.

Evolution theory has had a profound influence on modern thinking. From its nascent formulation by Charles Darwin, the theory of evolution has itself changed (evolved!) substantially over its first 150 years. I found it particularly interesting to learn that the modern theory is quite different from what my culture-imbued intuitions misled me to think. This course is eye-opening! Even if you disagree with some of the ideas of evolution (and who doesn’t have some questions and concerns about this subtle subject which is itself changing), this course corrects some of our endemic misperceptions. For example, Stearns asserts in lecture 3 that the notion of “survival of the fittest” is wrong! I had no idea that that iconic “sound bite” is but a dead-end on the road to the modern theory of evolution!

It’s not ignorance does so much damage; it’s knowing so darned much that ain’t so. — Josh Billings

With current concerns about global warming and other stresses on our environment, ecology is a vitally important subject. The point is reinforced by the work of three of the recent winners of the Buckminster Fuller Challenge which deeply engages the subject of ecology. The 2011 winner, Blue Ventures, conserves threatened marine environments. The 2010 winner, Project Hope, restores savannas and grasslands lost to desertification with a comprehensive program featuring cattle management. The 2008 winner, John Todd’s Comprehensive Design for a Carbon Neutral World, restores the ecological devastation of the impact of mining in Appalachia. The principles of biology and ecology are essential to better understand and contribute to these and similar initiatives to improve our management of Earth’s ecosystems while raising the standard of living of every human being. EEB 122 explains some of the vital principles that will underpin any such solution.

In summary, OYC’s EEB 122 is an excellent introduction to the basic principles of biology needed to better understand medicine, health care, evolution theory, ecology, the behavior of organisms, and biological technologies such as the enterprising work of the Buckminster Fuller Challenge winners. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, EEB 122 gives a conceptually broad, biologically detailed introduction to one of the most enchanting visions of change ever developed: the theory of the evolution of species.

How We Used the EEB 122 Course Materials

Jeannie and I started watching EEB 122 around New Year’s. We watch courses like this for edutainment. That is, we do not plan to become professional biologists, instead we watch video courses as a form cultural enrichment: How do biologists think? What do they know? What is the current understanding of evolution? I am deeply curious about how the world works. Video courses like EEB 122 are deeply enriching in this regard.

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Glibert Strang’s 18.06 Linear Algebra course at MIT OpenCourseWare is exquisite! Jeannie and I went through it about a year ago. Strang’s approach to the material and engaging teaching style make the course a joy. Unlike other OER (Open Educational Resources) courses that we have taken, I cannot recommend just watching the videos. Instead one needs to really think about the concepts which is greatly facilitated by doing the exercises: this is typical for mathematics. It took significant effort to master the content. The material builds quickly and it was essential for us to work hard on each lecture. On several occasions we re-watched the videos and had to read the text carefully and collate with other on-line resources (some provided or referenced in the wonderful OpenCourseWare materials but some found by web searching, Wikipedia, etc.). We also used resources from our library (personal and public).

Jeannie and I were able to enjoy the whole course but it definitely took significant effort. This is the only video course that we have thoroughly studied and it was worth it!

Are there any other OER video courses on linear algebra? I have not found any which is a shame for such important material.

Linear algebra is one of the most useful branches of mathematics beyond introductory (high school) algebra and geometry. It is the algebraic study of intersections of complexes of lines, planes and hyperplanes and therefore has a strong geometrical component. Since each coordinate in the Cartesian representation of a line can be thought of as a variable, linear algebra provides a first order or “linear” approximation to multivariable systems. It is therefore a widespread and fundamental tool. Linear algebra has found applications in business, economics, engineering, genetics, computer graphics, social sciences, graph theory and much more. It is essential for anyone wanting to understand advanced mathematics. The matrix or an array of numbers is the basic object of study in linear algebra. So it is sometimes called matrix theory. Vector spaces are the abstract form of linear algebra.

Is that a good characterization of linear algebra? How would you improve it?

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As citizens aboard SpaceShip Earth, we need to understand the principles of science and technology that shape our world. We need this knowledge to become effective co-designers of the world that Humanity is collectively building for today and tomorrow. We need to conceptually apprehend and comprehend how the Universe actually operates so we can better contribute to steering the forces that continually reshape our worlds. What are the most important concepts needed to proficiently build, use, steward, and re-generate the infrastructure of civilization on an on-going basis? Where can we get the information needed in terms that is easy to understand, easy to relate to, easy to use, and relevant to the problems we all face today and into the future?

Although Berkeley‘s free video course Physics C10/LS C70V: Physics for future Presidents AKA Descriptive Introduction to Physics is not the answer to all of these questions, it will explain the basic physics that is necessary to critically evaluate much of the information that inundates us each day. This course will significantly increase your ability to think more confidently about the heady questions above. It is a first step.

Is there an on-line video course that does a better job than Physics C10/LS C70V of explaining the broadly relevant principles needed to understand the big issues of the day?

In 2000, when Richard Muller started teaching a new course, Physics C10/LS C70V: Physics for future Presidents AKA Descriptive Introduction to Physics, at Berkelely he asked himself what are the principles and facts from physics that a student should understand to be able to make effective decisions on the Big issues of the day should they become President of the United States? From this ambitious question, a course was designed that is eminently useful. Even though it is oriented to the non-scientist, Physics majors at Berkeley can take the course for credit toward their degree, meaning it is even useful for scientists!

In an introductory post on the OER (Open Educational Resources) Movement, I explained that the Internet now offers illions of educational resources many with free video lectures. I’ve spent several years searching for and enjoying on-line video courses and Physics C10 is the most broadly relevant course with the most critical information for understanding how the world works that I have found. Everyone should watch, enjoy and think about this most enriching class of some 35 hours of free on-line video lectures!

What resources do you use to get comprehensively educated about the principles of science and technology and how they are changing our civilization so rapidly? What is the most important or broadly useful OER course that you have found on the Internet?

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