Project Description

The Model Thinker

Unlike most books I review, The Model Thinker is not for everyone. It is a detailed look at dozens of models used by social scientists and others to understand how organizations and systems work.

When I was in graduate school, we spent a lot of time debating two things that usually turned out to be dead ends. Why should we prefer theories to models? If we have to use one, what are the best models?

Modeler extraordinaire Scott Page debunks both of this theory in this intellectual romp through dozens of models.

Among other things, he blurs the distinction between models and theories if not debunking it altogether. Good models embed theories or–in the case of peacebuilding–theories of change within them. Even if they simplify reality (as do theories, by the way), good models make us smarter because they let us explore the implications of our assumptions of how things work. In fact, unlike my professors at Michigan (where Page teaches in part in my old department), he argues for using multiple models precisely because different models draw our attention to different causal and explanatory flows.

The book explores dozens of useful models, some of which are more useful to peacebuilding than others, in particular that focus on complexity, power, networks, exponential rates of change, coooperation, and systems dynamics. By the time you reach the middle of the book, Page assumes a mathematical sophistication that few readers of my reviews are likely to have. Indeed, there were places where I got lost in the equations–despite my own years of mathematical and computer training.

So, it makes sense here to focus on the seven key benefits of using models in understanding systems, which I’ve put in a slightly different order from the one in his book. Thus, models help us in:

  • Exploring its dynamics in detail
  • Reasoning through its component parts fit together
  • Predicting how the modeled phenomenon will unfold
  • Explaining why that occurred
  • Communicating your understanding of the conflict to others
  • Designing at least the first stages of a response to the conflict
  • Acting on the basis of that design.