Numbers don’t tell everything

Connecting essential issues that seem to have no link, introducing them with intelligence and humor while basing them on example from daily life is an exercise that only few experts can manage. The book of Pablo Jensen, physicist and sociologist, “Pourquoi la société ne se laisse pas mettre en équations”, that can be translated in “Why society cannot be put into equations” (Seuil – Open Science) is without hesitation an exception. Casually, we broach problems of science (Big Data and its inefficiency) or society (modelling of individuals and society). What is at stake is the intelligent use of abstractions! The fact that physicists have successfully modelled atoms and their components does not mean that this approach could be used to understand human and societal behavior. Wanting to connect what is about the “human species massively considered with a statistical approach to found a social mechanics as rigorous as Laplace’s celestial mechanics and capable of governing the masses” is doomed to fail for anyone with 2 neurons! And yet, we continue to rely on models to estimate votes, economy, health and everything around us. 2/3 of unwanted pregnancies occur in women who take the pill yet 100% safe because the tests are done in the laboratory and not in everyday life with impediments of various kinds. Then, economists, there is the poem! All the estimates of the BPI, Total, BNP, IMF, French state, etc, are invariably false and too optimistic! Researchers at the University of Nice have compared economic predictions and real values ​​since 1998: the results are edifying, even in the short term. Sophisticated models barely do better than the simplistic prediction that next year will be equal to this year! As the late Pierre Dax said, the problem with forecasts is that they concern the future. Scientists don’t cope well either with the current fashion of modelling and analysing everything in the light of big data and other globalist approaches. We forget the common sense and the multitude of factors that govern our behavior. Thus, when Nature publishes a paper showing that myopia is strongly correlated with the lighting of children’s rooms during sleep, conclusion, we must be switch off! Except that this correlation is accidental, because another paper shows a strong relation between the myopia of parents and children and between the myopia of parents and the lighting of the rooms during the night (they must be able to circulate)! Other example: Piaget asks children to choose the longest line by putting rows of chips (4 or 5 tighter). As children are mistaken, he concludes that at this age they do not know how to count. Except that a researcher has done the trick with 4 or 5 sweets and surprise, children are not wrong!

Social life does not consist of a series of one-time interactions as simulations suppose but as the result of the unfolding of relationships; as Andrew Abott puts it, “we are people not because we have an internal compass given by biology but because we constantly renew ourselves according to the experiences and connections we have created”.




Pourquoi la société ne se laisse pas mettre en équations

Pablo Jensen
Editions Seuil, Science ouverte

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