Everywhere you look, it seems, people are talking about “physics envy”. This derisive term mocks the attempt of economists and other social sciences practitioners to imbue their disciplines with the equations and mathematical rigor of physics – a rigor that many believe fails when applied to the messy environments of disciplines like sociology or economics. It’s not a new term – economist Philip Mirowski contributed to the Finnish Economic Papers series way back in 1992 with a piece entitled “Do Economists Suffer from Physics Envy?”
kinetic energy, not supply & demand
Eighteen years later the answer from many observation posts along the byways of public discourse appears to be: yes, they most certainly do, and so do their fellow travelers, business and financial markets experts. After all, we just barely survived the most devastating economic event of our times, deeper and more far-reaching than any downturn since the Great Depression, and all the high priests of the field can do is shake their heads and say “wow, I sure didn’t see that coming.” Distrust of fancy math is rampant in all walks of business life. That presents a real problem for enterprise decision-makers at a time when they need smart quantitative tools – yes, fancy math and all – more than ever. Markets are more complex than at any time in human history. Giant waves of transactional data inundate marketing managers with new information every day. Managers need science to help them gain valuable insights into the markets for their products and services – but how do they know that the growing number and variety of scientific marketing tools out there aren’t infected with the nasty symptoms of physics envy? Continue reading →
“Burn the mathematics” wrote economist Alfred Marshall in a letter to a friend, musing about the proper role of mathematics and scientific inquiry in the field of economics. That 19th century cogitation would seem to be a prêt-a-porter soundbite for these latter days of the 21st century’s first decade – a time in which the mathematical infrastructure that underpins longstanding economic and financial theories stands accused of all manner of malfeasance, particularly given its presumed role in the decade’s signature economic event – the financial market meltdown of 2008. The logic behind the accusation goes roughly thus: More complex (but not necessarily more “accurate”) models allow for more complex instruments to be created. Increased complexity means it takes more time to process and then fully comprehend what the numbers may be telling you. At the same time, though, technology allows buy and sell orders to be executed almost instantaneously through electronic trading systems. Time is of the essence, and ponderously complex computations simply won’t do. A seemingly elegant (and fast, and commercially viable) shortcut is discovered and becomes the currency of the day. The models’ outputs come to be trusted blindly simply because there is no time to question them (and too much money to be made by using them). The impenetrable Greek letters obfuscate the sensitivity of the models to changes in important assumptions – which is fine for a few years because those assumptions (e.g. rising housing prices) don’t change – but then all of a sudden they do. The models start losing more money than they make. Then the chasm widens further as the high levels of leverage in the system make themselves felt. The losses accelerate dramatically, wiping out years of profits in just a few months. Burn the mathematics, indeed.
But let’s take a different look at this apparent tight coupling of mathematics and dire outcomes. Our recent correspondence with an author who has been widely published on the subject of Wall Street’s use of mathematical models recently offered to us an interesting opinion. His point was that the problem with the models was not so much their complexity, but rather that they were models in the first place. His argument was that you can’t ever perfectly hedge model risk. Now, I agree with that observation: a model by definition selects some aspects of reality to represent and omits others, and the choice of what to include and what to omit is subject to human error, therefore fallible and not perfectly hedgable. But I take issue with the idea that the fault lies in the existence of the models themselves. Models can be misused – I think that much is clear. But the notion that models are all doomed to failure obscures a deeper truth about the goals of predictive modeling; namely that you can seek either to reduce the world or truly explain it. By trying to elegantly reduce the world to as few predictor variables as possible, you are more likely to be sowing the seeds of future failure, because complexity and actual drivers of outcomes are taken out of the equations to make them more solvable (or perhaps sellable, as in the case of the Gaussian copula function that was behind Wall Street’s demise, as we discussed in a previous posting “You Can’t Punt Away the Dimensionality Curse”). Predictive modelers don’t have to go down that road, however: they can also set out with the goal not of reducing an entire system to a single neat, tractable equation, but to quantify and explain all of the relationships that dictate outcomes to the absolute fullest extent possible. Tractability and computability are things to address later in the process, through technological means, but they should not dictate the fundamental mathematical approach at the outset. Continue reading →