People around the world want answers about the spread of COVID-19. Models offer data-driven certainties, right?

The only problem with this bit of relatively good news? It’s almost certainly wrong. All models are wrong. Some are just less wrong than others — and those are the ones that public health officials rely on…

The latest calculations are based on better data on how the virus acts, more information on how people act and more cities as examples. For example, new data from Italy and Spain suggest social distancing is working even better than expected to stop the spread of the virus…

Squeeze all those thousands of data points into incredibly complex mathematical equations and voila, here’s what’s going to happen next with the pandemic. Except, remember, there’s a huge margin of error: For the prediction of U.S. deaths, the range is larger than the population of Wilmington, Delaware.

“No model is perfect, but most models are somewhat useful,” said John Allen Paulos, a professor of math at Temple University and author of several books about math and everyday life. “But we can’t confuse the model with reality.”…

Because of the large fudge factor, it’s smart not to look at one single number — the minimum number of deaths, or the maximum for that matter — but instead at the range of confidence, where there’s a 95% chance reality will fall, mathematician Paulos said. For the University of Washington model, that’s from 50,000 to 136,000 deaths.

Models depend on the data available, the assumptions made by researchers, the equations utilized, and then there is a social component where people (ranging from academics to residents to leaders to the media) interact with the results of the model.

This reminds me of sociologist Joel Best’s argument regarding how people should view statistics and data. One option is to be cynical about all data. The models are rarely right on so why trust any numbers? Better to go with other kinds of evidence. Another option is to naively accept models and numbers. They have the weight of math, science, and research. They are complicated and should simply be trusted. Best proposes a third option between these two extremes: a critical approach. Armed with some good questions (what data are the researchers working with? what assumptions did they make? what do the statistics/model actually say?), a reader of models and data analysis can start to evaluate the results. Models cannot do everything – but they can do something.

(Also see a post last week about models and what they can offer during a pandemic.)