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Five ways to ensure that models serve society: a manifesto

Five ways to ensure that models serve society: a manifesto

Pandemic politics highlight how predictions need to be transparent and humble to invite insight, not blame.
Cartoon of scientists and policymakers inspecting the inside of a black box that is outputting a policy document

Illustration by David Parkins

The COVID-19 pandemic illustrates perfectly how the operation of science changes when questions of urgency, stakes, values and uncertainty collide — in the ‘post-normal’ regime.

Well before the coronavirus pandemic, statisticians were debating how to prevent malpractice such as p-hacking, particularly when it could influence policy1. Now, computer modelling is in the limelight, with politicians presenting their policies as dictated by ‘science’2. Yet there is no substantial aspect of this pandemic for which any researcher can currently provide precise, reliable numbers. Known unknowns include the prevalence and fatality and reproduction rates of the virus in populations. There are few estimates of the number of asymptomatic infections, and they are highly variable. We know even less about the seasonality of infections and how immunity works, not to mention the impact of social-distancing interventions in diverse, complex societies.

Mathematical models produce highly uncertain numbers that predict future infections, hospitalizations and deaths under various scenarios. Rather than using models to inform their understanding, political rivals often brandish them to support predetermined agendas. To make sure predictions do not become adjuncts to a political cause, modellers, decision makers and citizens need to establish new social norms. Modellers must not be permitted to project more certainty than their models deserve; and politicians must not be allowed to offload accountability to models of their choosing2,3.

This is important because, when used appropriately, models serve society extremely well: perhaps the best known are those used in weather forecasting. These models have been honed by testing millions of forecasts against reality.

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