Most models are wrong, but some are useful
That's a paraphrase of an observation by the late George Box. The actual statement by Professor Box is longer and rather convoluted. Its common misquotations seem more eloquent and rather profound.
I have used the most common phrasing, “All models are wrong, but some are useful”, as a signature in my online conversations during the past couple of years.
It occurred to me that the statement itself is a sort of model, and that it should be subject to its own wisdom. An absolute assertion such as “All models” begs for a counterexample, which is exactly the sort of nitpicking that Box tried to discredit. And since it's already a misquote, I think it's within the spirit of the statement to phrase it as:
Most models are wrong, but some are useful.
I've found that statement describes a very, very useful way to think about our world. I use it daily to figure out how to fit together disparate puzzle piece ideas.
So I thank you, Professor Box, for contributing such a useful model to our often puzzling world.
Finding value, not just flaws
I'm pleasantly surprised by the number of readers who find their way here because they seek information about George Box and his comments about conceptual models.
In other words: There are some! I hope you seekers find wisdom and applicability in his comment, as I have.
Most models are wrong, but some are useful. The realization that most mental models, along with policies, plans, propositions, crazy ideas, brilliant ideas, and just plain ideas, the realization that most of them have flaws makes finding their flaws seem pointless. Yeah, they're flawed, but so what? Some are useful. I like the way this insight redirects our attention toward usefulness.
I like that attitude a lot. In my experience that attitude brings knowledge and understanding with minimal hassle and conflict. It contrasts with an attitude that I find disturbingly common. I spend considerable time in the presence of people who delight in finding flaws, but who express no interest in finding utility. Their trademark characteristic, their default attitude, and their habitual behavior is rejection. And way too often, it's vehement, vociferous, angry rejection.
I feel like I've inadvertantly stumbled into a shooting gallery. So many of these self-proclaimed skeptics seem to do nothing but wait for ideas to be tossed in front of them like clay targets. Bang! Another idea shot down. Did that idea have merit? Who cares! I shot it! I found a flaw! Woohoo!
I used to be a pretty good shot myself, in that way. I practiced daily, just like the idea shooters blasting away now on the web, on TV, on radio. But if most models are wrong, if most ideas are flawed, then we're surrounded by pathetically easy targets. Found a flaw? So what. An attitude and worldview in which most models are wrong, but some are useful, puts shotgun skepticism in a less flattering perspective.
Whether we call it skepticism, cynicism, or critical thinking run amok, by itself it's not helpful. Such behavior is not useful.
Can we find value? Can we find utility? Is this model, this idea, this proposition, is it useful? Surrounded by trigger-happy shooters trying to impress their friends (it's no fun without an audience, is it?) finding value amid the noise and the debris, that's a talent I admire.
Does this beg the question whether I'm finding flaws in finding flaws, whether I'm skeptical of skepticism? Of course it does. Bang. We shot that one, too. And gained nothing of value.
Instead, what if...?
What if we think of finding flaws as just one component of careful, clear thinking? It seems to me that seeking value, seeking merit, seeking usefulness, that attitude of inquiry is another component of careful, clear thinking. To me that's a critical component of critical thinking.
Shooting down ideas for the sake of making a big noise and impressing a crowd;
Seeking usefulness while acknowledging limitation.
What attitude do we display in each case? What's the most likely outcome in each case?
Which attitude creates the world we want?
Stephen Colbert, speaking at Knox College, observed
Cynicism is a self-imposed blindness
Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying “yes” begins things. Saying “yes” is how things grow. Saying “yes” leads to knowledge.
Three key pieces
- Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, by George Lakoff
- The Fifth Discipline, by Peter Senge
- Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn
A frame to hold those pieces: Most models are wrong, but some are useful.