Posts Tagged ‘Coursera’

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.

Read the rest of this essay »

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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

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