Computer modelling: all about the image?

Sunday 20 October, 9.30am until 10.15am, Frobisher Auditorium 2 Battle over Scientific Information

Computer modelling is magic that turns empirical observations into our imaginary future. How many of us will need pensions, artificial hips, or houses in 2050? How much will sea levels rise or incomes fall? Plug enough data into a computer model, and out pour figures and graphs. But from pensions to climate, the line between projecting a trend and predicting the future is often blurred. What assumptions went into constructing the model of reality that underlies the mathematical model? Any projection assumes a host of factors will stay the same, or change predictably. In the real world, things are less consistent.

We need some kind of guide to how the future will probably turn out, if we are to plan anything that takes a few years to bring to fruition. Building power stations, for example, or training doctors. But we also need a good idea of how closely to trust that guide. The precision of graphs and numbers can stamp complex, informed speculation with undue scientific authority. So what are the limitations of mathematical modelling? Should we be more sceptical of its authority? And how much does it matter if some of the details are wrong?

Dr Robin Purshouse
lecturer, University of Sheffield; member, "Sheffield Alcohol Policy Model" team

Dr Jonathan Rougier
reader in statistics, University of Bristol

Hilary Salt
actuary; founder, First Actuarial

Timandra Harkness
journalist, writer & broadcaster; presenter, Futureproofing and other BBC Radio 4 programmes; author, Big Data: does size matter?

Produced by
Timandra Harkness journalist, writer & broadcaster; presenter, Futureproofing and other BBC Radio 4 programmes; author, Big Data: does size matter?
Recommended readings
Tracking criminal movement using math: Will the next strike be near or far away?

One way to study criminal behavior and predict a criminal's next move is by analyzing his or her movement. Several mathematical models have addressed this in detail, in particular, the UCLA, 12 September 2013

Why trust climate models? It’s a matter of simple science

How climate scientists test, test again, and use their simulation tools.

Scott K. Johnson, Ars Technica, 6 September 2013


How do we predict our future?

All models are Wrong, 9 May 2013

Black-Scholes: The maths formula linked to the financial crash

It's not every day that someone writes down an equation that ends up changing the world. But it does happen sometimes, and the world doesn't always change for the better. It has been argued that one formula known as Black-Scholes, along with its descendants, helped to blow up the financial world.

Tim Harford, BBC, 28 April 2012

What is feminism for?

"The rules of the game at The Battle of Ideas makes beating about the bush impossible. When you are given 5 minutes to make your point, you either say something essential, or you reveal that you have nothing really to say. This eliminates 'the unbearable lightness' of speculation that haunts public debate."
Albena Azmanova, social philosopher, political commentator and activist

follow the Academy of Ideas