IIASA researcher Sibel Eker explores the usefulness and reliability of COVID-19 models for informing decision making about the extent of the epidemic and the healthcare problem.
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when facts were uncertain, decisions were urgent, and stakes were very high, both the public and policymakers turned not to oracles, but to mathematical modelers to ask how many people could be infected and how the pandemic would evolve. The response was a plethora of hypothetical models shared on online platforms and numerous better calibrated scientific models published in online repositories. A few such models were announced to support governments’ decision-making processes in countries like Austria, the UK, and the US.
With this announcement, a heated debate began about the accuracy of model projections and their reliability. In the UK, for instance, the model developed by the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London projected around 500,000 and 20,000 deaths without and with strict measures, respectively. These different policy scenarios were misinterpreted by the media as a drastic variation in the model assumptions, and hence a lack of reliability. In the US, projections of the model developed by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) changed as new data were fed into the model, sparking further debate about the accuracy thereof.
This discussion about the accuracy and reliability of COVID-19 models led me to rethink model validity and validation. In a previous study, my colleagues and I showed that, based on a vast scientific literature on model validation and practitioners’ views, validity often equates with how good a model represents the reality, which is often measured by how accurately the model replicates the observed data. However, representativeness does not always imply the usefulness of a model. A commentary following that study emphasized the tradeoff between representativeness and the propagation error caused by it, thereby cautioning against an exaggerated focus on extending model boundaries and creating a modeling hubris.
Following these previous studies, in my latest commentary in Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, I briefly reviewed the COVID-19 models used in public policymaking in Austria, the UK, and the US in terms of how they capture the complexity of reality, how they report their validation, and how they communicate their assumptions and uncertainties. I concluded that the three models are undeniably useful for informing the public and policy debate about the extent of the epidemic and the healthcare problem. They serve the purpose of synthesizing the best available knowledge and data, and they provide a testbed for altering our assumptions and creating a variety of “what-if” scenarios. However, they cannot be seen as accurate prediction tools, not only because no model is able to do this, but also because these models lacked thorough formal validation according to their reports in late March. While it may be true that media misinterpretation triggered the debate about accuracy, there are expressions of overconfidence in the reporting of these models, even though the communication of uncertainties and assumptions are not fully clear.
The uncertainty and urgency associated with pandemic decision-making is familiar to many policymaking situations from climate change mitigation to sustainable resource management. Therefore, the lessons learned from the use of COVID models can resonate in other disciplines. Post-crisis research can analyze the usefulness of these models in the discourse and decision making so that we can better prepare for the next outbreak and we can better utilize policy models in any situation. Until then, we should take the prediction claims of any model with caution, focus on the scenario analysis capability of models, and remind ourselves one more time that a model is a representation of reality, not the reality itself, like René Magritte notes that his perfectly curved and brightly polished pipe is not a pipe.
Eker S (2020). Validity and usefulness of COVID-19 models. Humanities and Social Sciences Communications 7 (1) [pure.iiasa.ac.at/16614]
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.