The Treachery of Models

In Magritte’s famous 1929 painting The Treachery of Images, a pipe is depicted with the caption “Ceci n’est pas une pipe“, French for “This is not a pipe”. The seemingly dissonant statement under what is a very clearly depicted pipe forces the viewer to confront the distinction between the representation and the thing itself. The treachery refers to the danger involved in confusing the representation with the object.

Models – like images – are merely representations of the objects they depict. The modeler seeks to represent the relevant properties of the system being modeled in order to communicate some features of that system, or to manipulate it under ‘what-if’ scenarios.

With the current plethora of models of COVID-19 spread, it seems important to remind ourselves of Magritte’s warning. Models can be incredible tools — abstractions of complex realities that allow us to reason about the data we’ve seen so far, and consider possible futures. But they are not the epidemic process itself.

Ceci n'est pas une épidémie.

This is not an argument that the models themselves are treacherous. I absolutely adore modeling and models, as Magritte adored painting and images. I consider modeling an essential tool to further our understanding of (and make predictions about) the world around us. Indeed I developed one of the aforementioned COVID-19 models with my colleagues at Penn Medicine. The treachery comes when we mistake the abstraction for reality.

One thought on “The Treachery of Models

  1. I would like to argue that it is more useful to look at models as representation of theories a.k.a. human language. Thus, as language/theory can be true by virtue of corresponding to things as they are, a model (consisting of math) can be useful if it corresponds well to the theory that it is meant to represent. A useful model lets us to examine the theory in a testable and open manner. This means that a model is separated from reality by the theory and cannot address it directly.

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