Why People Confuse Models and Theories
EMANUEL DERMAN is Head of Risk at Prisma Capital Partners and a professor at Columbia University, where he directs their program in financial engineering. He is the author of My Life As A Quant, one of Business Week's top ten books of the year, in which he introduced the quant world to a wide audience.
He was born in South Africa but has lived most of his professional life in Manhattan in New York City, where he has made contributions to several fields. He started out as a theoretical physicist, doing research on unified theories of elementary particle interactions. At AT&T Bell Laboratories in the 1980s he developed programming languages for business modeling. From 1985 to 2002 he worked on Wall Street, running quantitative strategies research groups in fixed income, equities and risk management, and was appointed a managing director at Goldman Sachs & Co. in 1997. The financial models he developed there, the Black-Derman-Toy interest rate model and the Derman-Kani local volatility model, have become widely used industry standards.
In his 1996 article Model Risk Derman pointed out the dangers that inevitably accompany the use of models, a theme he developed in My Life as a Quant. Among his many awards and honors, he was named the SunGard/IAFE Financial Engineer of the Year in 2000. He has a PhD in theoretical physics from Columbia University and is the author of numerous articles in elementary particle physics, computer science, and finance.
It’s interesting to think about why people confuse models with theories. I think probably there are two reasons. One is the incredible effectiveness of mathematical theories in the physical and natural sciences and how well they behave, how well they work.
The second reason is that as a result of trying to apply that sort of approach to the world, people use mathematics. And mathematics looks incredibly accurate and so you may mistake it for a theory, but it’s really a model. It’s an analogy that doesn’t have the essential truth of a theory.
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