Just the Facts: Obit for Jay Forester

Late last year, a great man, most have never heard of, passed on. Unless you are an engineer you don’t know that Jay Forester, Prof at MIT, established the field of systems modeling.  Also called simulation, this is the mathematical methodology that underlies what we take for granted in weather prediction, including understanding climate change.  Starting with modeling chemical factories before they were built, this is far more important than seen at first glance.  Without these techniques, we get the outrageous statements we have seen in multitudes in the last election cycle.  It turns out that ‘common sense’ is a very poor predictor of the future, it takes a rigorous application of data using science and mathematics to really understand what policies lead to the best outcomes in the public sector.  His work can best be described in the terms ‘counter-intuitive’ and ‘unexpected consequences’.   It may be obvious that mathematical models are required to send a spaceship to the moon, not quite so to understand why some gun controls work and others don’t, why some types of police patrols are effective and other cause community upheaval.  Even more so, that the heavy handed lobbying of the NRA has limited our understanding of gun rules, by blocking research that produces the real numbers that are needed for such models.  Other claims that need addressing: tax reduction leads to job creation, and the social security system is bankrupt or will be soon.  The real message of this story is that understanding the models, that Dr Forester’s work led to, is critical to proper policies in today’s complex world and must be based on real numbers, not guessing.
In short, good governing is not rocket science, it is far harder and needs all the tools technology can offer.

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