Lesson 3 of 6
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Lesson 3: Limitations Of Mathematical Modeling

Casey Snepar July 26, 2021

Mathematical Models Matter: A Course for Advocates

Welcome to Lesson 3. This lesson helps you differentiate between questions that can and can’t be answered with mathematical modeling.

As you learned in Lesson 1, mathematical models can be used: 

  • To understand the spread of diseases or the future course of an outbreak 
  • To evaluate the impact of public health interventions
  • To evaluate the cost-effectiveness of public health interventions
  • When clinical trials are not possible

While modeling is useful in these instances, it isn’t the best approach for answering all questions. To formulate a question that can be addressed using mathematical modeling, you need to be able to define the model inputs and outputs and the mathematical relationships between them. Ideally the models will build on real-world studies that measure these mathematical relationships, such as measuring the costs and impacts of interventions, factors that impact disease transmission, morbidity (illness) and mortality (death), how quickly diseases spread through populations with different characteristics and how populations grow over time. Questions that already have data about some of these relationships may lend themselves to mathematical modeling. Other questions are better studied by trying to measure what happens in the real world, because modeling would require too many assumptions to be informative.


The exercise below will help you differentiate between questions that are more and less suitable for modeling. Read the questions below and select ‘yes’ if modeling can be used to answer the question and ‘no’ if a different approach should be used. Please continue to click the arrow to ensure you answered all of the questions.