Fri Mar 26, 2004

Seduced by a Model

A nice example via Crescat Sententia of an issue I’ve mentioned before, namely, a case where the stylized facts lend themselves to an elegant bit of modeling that seems to analyze things very neatly, but the empirical details turn out to be much messier or a different kind of process altogether. Here it’s the debate about the Hijab in French schools. This is why fieldwork is important. The identification of mechanisms like sub-optimal conventions, failed co-ordination, tipping phenomena, self-fulfilling prophecies or auto-equilibrating systems are amongst the most useful and powerful tools in social science, but the number of phenomena they appear to explain is much larger than those they in fact explain. This can lead to odd consequences. For example, John Sutton’s little book Marshall’s Tendencies (which I didn’t read carefully enough when I picked it up) makes the point that we can be led to misapply standard models not just when the reality is much more complicated or otherwise difficult, but even when there’s a perfectly good alternative model available, just not the obvious one.

Reaction to my last few posts make me want to add disclaimers like “Look, this doesn’t mean formal modeling is unimportant or bad,” “Yes, yes, of course there are lots of very smart game theorists,” and “No, Libertarians, I am not talking about you, so please relax.”

And sorry to anyone who was expecting this post to be about the attractions of the other kind of model.