Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Signal and the Noise

Some time ago Zhiyong pointed me to Nate Silver's book "The Signal and the Noise" which is about the science of prediction. I'm now reading it again and in fact go back to it regularly because it is, I believe, essential (and sobering) reading for anyone engaged in the modeling business.

One of the key things I took away from this book is the human tendency to psychologically "anchor" on any scenario which we have put a lot of time and effort into constructing. This is a real danger for anyone who has toiled through the process of building a 3D model for a basin where much data gathering, entry, mulling over input parameters, resolving IT issues etc is often necessary to reach the point where the model can be executed. This typically takes days to weeks in my experience. Then, depending on the size of the model, it might take hours to days to complete a single run. At the end of this process one is well and truly "anchored" on the particular scenario chosen in the process of setting the model up. It is very hard, and very time consuming, to then go back and test alternative scenarios. It has been made easier by recent software and hardware improvements but it is still a difficult thing to do psychologically.

In training courses I am fond of a particular analogy for the model building process which involves some pictures of bridges. The idea is that any model is a framework of physical law that we use to connect the known (data, analogs etc) to the unknown (our target play or prospect). We need both good data and a good framework to build a good bridge and so get to the other side safely. In a way, the model algorithms encode prior knowledge (in the Bayesian sense) about how petroleum systems work in general, hopefully preventing us over-fitting our data and indulging in the wilder of our fantasies.

While reading the book last week an old and favourite movie appeared late one night on the TV. This was David Lean's classic 'The Bridge on the River Kwai", Alec Guinness in the lead role. For those who don't know this movie, the story describes a group of English prisoners in WWII Thailand, being forced by the Japanese to build a rail bridge over the river Kwai. The martinet colonel (Guinness) keeps his soldiers alive, in the face of appalling mistreatment, by giving them the focus of building the bridge. At the end of the movie the bridge is complete and the first Japanese train about to cross it. The British plan, all along, was to blow up the bridge with hidden charges just as the train crosses. However, when it comes down to it Guinness cannot bring himself to blow the bridge and tries to prevent it. He has become "anchored" to the bridge through the pain and toil of building it and is unable to see the "bigger picture" of hampering the Japanese war effort.

Happy Modeling

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