Quantifying and oversimplifying are two different things

Consider this bit from a recent New Yorker piece on whether economists and humanists can get along:

“Economists tend to be hedgehogs, forever on the search for a single, unifying explanation of complex phenomena. They love to look at a huge, complicated mass of human behavior and reduce it to an equation.”

Those two sentences are not remotely close to describing the same thing! Using equations to model human behavior does require some simplification. But they don’t commit you to believing a single, unifying explanation anymore than explaining things in words ensures subtlety.

I’m currently reading The Model Thinker by Scott Page, which perfectly illustrates this point. Page advances two ideas: first, that mathematical models of human behavior are useful, and second that many different models are better than just one.

Page is right on both counts. One might still object to the constant desire to quantify or to an over-reliance on formal models. You might even think those two errors are correlated. But they’re not the same thing, and the existence of one can’t fully explain the other.

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