I don’t trust models and Governor Cuomo doesn’t either

“I’m out of that business because we all failed at that business. Right? All the early national experts. Here’s my projection model. Here’s my projection model. They were all wrong. They were all wrong.”

That’s New York State Governor Cuomo speaking on Memorial Day.  Welcome to the club.  I’ve been watching models fail for 50 years.

Cuomo has a right to be bitter.  The models told him he’d need 30,000 respirators, but Trump only gave him 4,000 prompting him to ask Trump to pick the 26,000 people he wanted to die.   Later he shipped his excess ventilators to other states. The faith he showed in the models he was fed would put a medieval theologian to shame.

Hopefully, in the future,  those in power will be more cynical about the models presented to them.

So here’s a ‘greatest hits list’  of a few models which failed.  Let’s start with

l. The population bomb (Paul Ehrlich) — ”

The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.

2. The Club of Rome released the following broadside in 1974, “The Limits to Growth”Here is a direct quote from the jacket flap.

“Will this be the world that your grandchildren with thank you for? A world where industrial production has sunk to zero. Where population has suffered a catastrophic decline. Where the air, sea and land are polluted beyond redemption. Where civilization is a distant memory. This is the world that the computer forecasts. What is even more alarming, the collapse will not come gradually, but with awesome suddenness, with no way of stopping it”

You can read more about these two in the following post — https://luysii.wordpress.com/2018/04/11/an-unhappy-anniversary/

3.  My cousin runs an advisory service for institutional investors (hedge funds, retirement funds, stock market funds etc. etc.)  Here is the beginning of his latest post 16 June ’17

There were 3 great reads yesterday. First was Neil Irwin’s article in the NY Times “Janet Yellen, the Fed and the Case of the Missing Inflation.”  He points out that Yellen is a labor market scholar who anticipated the sharp decline in the unemployment rate. However the models on which the Fed has relied anticipate higher levels of inflation. Yet every inflation measure that the Fed uses has fallen well short of the Fed’s 2% stability rate. If they continue raising short-term rates in the face of low inflation, then “real” rates could restrain future economic growth.Second was Greg Ip’s article “Lousy Raise? It Might Not Get Better.” Greg makes the point that tight labor markets are a global phenomenon in many industrialized countries, yet wage inflation remains muted. Writes Greg “If a labor market this tight can’t generate better pay, quite possibly it never will in Germany & Japan.”

Third was an article by Glenn Hubbard (Dean of Columbia Business School & former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors under George W. Bush). His Wall Street Journal op-ed was titled “How to Keep the Fed from Following its Models off a Cliff.”  Hubbard suggests that Fed officials should interact more with market participants and business people. And Fed governors should be selected because of their varied life experiences, and they should encourage a healthy skepticism of prevailing economic models.

Serious money was spent developing these models.  Do you think that climate is in some way simpler than the US economy, so that they are more likely to be accurate?  I do not.

4.  Americans are getting fatter yet living longer, contradicting the model that being mildly overweight is bad for you.  It is far too long to go into so here’s the link — https://luysii.wordpress.com/2013/05/30/something-is-wrong-with-the-model-take-2/.

The first part is particularly fascinating, in that data showed that overweight (not obese) people tended to live longer.  The article describes how people who had spent their research careers telling the public that being overweight was bad, tried to discount the data. The best quote in the article is the following ““We’re scientists. We pay attention to data, we don’t try to un-explain them.”,

4. The economic predictions of the Congressional Budget Office on just about anything –inflation, gross national product, economic growth, the deficit — are consistently wrong — http://www.ncpa.org/sub/dpd/?Article_ID=21516.

Addendum 28 June “White house economists overestimated annual economic growth by about 80 percent on average for a six year stretch during Barack Obama’s presidency, according to Freedom Works economic consultant Stephen Moore.

Economists predicted growth between 3.2 to 4.6 percent for the years 2010 through 2015. Actual economic growth never hit above 2.6 percent.”

5.  Animal models of stroke:  There were at least 60, in which some therapy or other was of benefit.  None of them worked in people. It got so bad I stopped reading the literature about it.  We still have no useful treatment for garden variety strokes

6: Live by the model, die by the model. A fascinating book “Shattered” about the Hillary Clinton campaign, explains why the campaign did no polling in the final 3 weeks of the campaign. The man running the ‘data analytics’ (translation: model) Robby Mook, thought the analytics were better and more accurate (p. 367).

I might add that I have no special mistrust of climate models, I just mistrust all models of complex systems.   For some thoughts on climate models please see — https://luysii.wordpress.com/2015/12/13/a-climate-treaty-based-on-a-failed-model-a-victory-for-the-political-class/

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  • Peter Shenkin  On May 31, 2020 at 10:52 pm

    Having spent my career with such models, I believe they are useful only to the extent that they provide ideas that can be tested by experiment. Fields where a tight feedback loop can be run iterating computation, prediction and experiment can move forward with better computational models. In drug design, that really translates into a better choice of compounds to do lab assays on. In the engineering world, crash simulation is extremely useful and, I believe, quite accurate even in complex situations, but the results of the models are always put to a test. Unfortunately, there is no way to test the future result of a climate-simulation model. Retrospective analysis lends itself to overfitting of parameters to past results resulting in non-transferability to future situations.

    You mentioned Ehrlich. He was interviewed recently. He’s still a true believer; he thinks he just got the date wrong, like the early Jehovah’s Witnesses. As you’ll know if you ever read the book “When Prophesy Fails”, those who stick it out and continue to believe despite the failure of prediction end up most fervent believers of all.

    Either way, to me, the most interesting historical question to address is “Why has Malthus been so wrong for so long?”

    • Peter Shenkin  On May 31, 2020 at 11:10 pm

      I meant to say, “Unfortunately, there is no way to run an experiment to test the result of a climate-simulation model.”

    • luysii  On June 2, 2020 at 1:52 pm


      Having had a strong religious upbringing and growing up with people with equally strong upbringings but of a different sort, it’s easy to recognize a strong whiff of old Testament prophecy of doom (unless our evil ways are changed) in the global warming/climate change agenda. Ehrlich fits right in. If you want to read an excellent book on Ehrlich and his adversary Julian Simon — read “The Bet” by Yale prof. Paul Sabin. It’s very well written

  • Mark Thorson  On June 1, 2020 at 12:48 am

    Congrats to Andrew Cuomo for recognizing his error and reversing course 100%. I think that man may become President someday. Probably a really good one, too.

    • luysii  On June 2, 2020 at 11:15 am

      Mark — Sorry for the delay in responding. Such an admission by a politician is rare. One example was Teddy Kennedy apologizing to Everett Koop saying that he’d been wrong about him. Long before Koop was Surgeon General under Reagan he was a widely admired professor of surgery at Penn. He was always honest and blunt. One example —

      One of the 10 women out of my Penn Med School class of 125 graduating in ’66 was very bright and very poor. She worked as a surgical tech during the summer between the first few years and wanted to become a surgeon. She worked with Everett Koop who was very impressed with her. He told her that she deserved a top surgical residency, but that none of them would take a woman and to go into something else (typical Koop). So she went into radiology and ran the radiology residency program at an Ivy League Med school for years.

  • Ashutosh Jogalekar  On June 1, 2020 at 1:35 am

    Peter Shenkin: I think the major metric of progress that we have seen time and time again is how we increase efficiency by extracting more and more amount of work from fewer and fewer resources. This is a proven fact and I can dig up the relevant publications. I think this is the main reason Malthus has been constantly proven wrong.

    • John Wayne  On June 1, 2020 at 11:40 pm

      Ash, I’d love to read some of those papers. My observations are that organizations that get a lot of ‘work’ done are often mostly producing bureaucratic labor. Some is necessary, but often becomes self-fulfilling.

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