Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Useful vs correct

Models are used a lot in science but are rarely mentioned in media coverage. The exception being that sometimes when they're wrong, they get covered. Usually I note, when the error turns out to be in favour of a particular agenda. If you pay attention to science media you often hear "our previous models were wrong, we hadn't accounted for X". That happens all the time in climate science but it's usually along the lines of things are a lot worse than we though rather than don't worry, things aren't as bad. this Ars Technica article had a gem in it though:
All scientists get George Box’s dictum beaten into them: “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” And some are very useful, indeed. Gravitational models of the solar system, for example, allow space agencies to slingshot their spacecraft around planets and land on a moving bulls-eye more than 50 million miles away. If you’re not impressed by that, you might need medical attention.
I'd add that some models are more or less wrong than others. It's wrong to model earth as a sphere rather than an oblate spheroid, but it's less wrong to model it as a sphere than it is to model it as a piece of flat land riding through space on the back of a turtle.

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