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The Blind Archer

Posted by Dr No on 13 April 2014

the_blind_archer.jpgHell may have no fury greater than a woman scorned, but surely Heaven can have no joy greater than a woman reformed. In a remarkable development, scientists in North America have popped not a bun but a biodegradable scaffold layered with a patient’s vulval and other cells in the oven, and after the required time at the requisite temperature been rewarded with a fully formed vagina. Four women born without a vagina have had ready-vaginas made this way implanted, and have subsequently reported normal or even atomic levels of ‘desire, arousal, satisfaction and orgasm’. This extraordinary advance may in the short term pave the way for a gruesome commerce in designer vaginas – each scaffold is individually crafted - but in time it can only end one way: the day will dawn when we pop not buns but homunculi in the oven, to be rewarded nine months later with little incubi, all of whom will go on to report normal or even atomic levels of desire, arousal, satisfaction and orgasm. Truly, science knows no bounds.

Meanwhile, back on terra firma, the popular pseudoscience known as modelling continues to astound, not by its achievements, but by the flightiness of its predictions. Time was when modelling involved something from the Airfix factory and the heady scent of polystyrene cement, but with today’s formidable computers, the ovens of statistics, modellers can bake all manner of data cakes. The grand-daddy of them all is of course the man-made global warming hockey stick of the climatologists, but these days modellers are everywhere. The Sheffield numerologists continue to cook the books on minimum alcohol pricing. In the City, analysts fry off market predictions, each one as wrong as the last. More recently, modellers had a stab at predicting where Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 went down, only to find their arrows landed in the wrong bit of sea. Truly, pseudoscience also knows no bounds, though its arrows be wild.

As a parlour game, modelling, like Ouija, might be fun, but as science it suffers two flaws, each as serious as the other. The first is that it violates the principle not to give extrapolation the same certainly as interpolation. It is one thing to join up the dots on a chart with a line, and be reasonably certain about the values of intermediary but invisible dots on the line, quite another to fire the line onwards, outwards and usually upwards into the future, where stuff happens. Little did frantic investors buying shares on the booming stock markets of 1999 or 2007 know that stuff was about to happen. Even when models can tell us about historical trends, they can all too often fail to tell us what is about to happen next, because stuff happens. This is why modellers, though tolerable historians, are hopeless predictors. They are the blind archers, firing their arrows into the future, each firing his arrow as wildly as the last, only to join the long and sorry line of red-faced Nostradami.

Were an inability to build in the fact that stuff happens the only flaw, we might choose to use historical models as starting points for sceptical discussion, the arrows of prediction tipped not with flints but rubber suckers. But the modeller armed with what is all said and done little more than an elaborate Excel what-if spreadsheet knows no such bounds. The modeller can open his still blind eye and give his now flinted arrow an appearance of direction. What if we increase the minimum price of alcohol? The model says heavy drinkers will drink less, but the rest of us should ask: what if the model is wrong? What if heavy drinkers are relatively price inelastic, that is, increases in price have little effect on consumption? Elsewhere, the modellers ask what if Flight MH370 was going a little faster – or slower? The arrow still flies over the sea, and arrives where it will, but are we any wiser? The answer, so far, is no.

Modelling is a tool, for sure, but to give the blind archers’ arrows of prediction an air of unchallenged authority is to play bows and arrows with blindfolds. As the man said, do not try this at home. Sooner or later, someone will get hurt.

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