Why we need Models, and why it’s hard to change them.

  •  It’s 460BC. Your job is a map maker, and your maps show the world to be flat. You’ve a lockup garage of flat earth maps to sell. But you also like astronomy, and understanding the planets.
    • Is a model of a flat earth of any use? Is it good?  It was good enough for me to get to work, and to drive a cart to London.
    • But it’s not good enough for astronomy, you need another model.
  • You hear of the model of the earth as a sphere. Hmm, this fits simple astronomy, but does it make your lockup full of flat earth maps worthless? Which model do you believe? How hard is it to change your mind to a new more complicated model?
    • Is the model good enough? It’s great when thinking on a global scale – like where is Australia relative to where you are.
    • But maybe it’s a bit complicated for driving to London. A flat earth map will be fine for that.
  • From the international space station, is the model of the earth as a sphere good enough?
    • Maybe not. Gravity may be affected by the shape of the earth, and the movement of planets may need more complicated models. But perhaps you don’t need a model of the earth that shows the Himalayas.
  • Is that enough models?
  • What if you are cycling to London? A flat earth map won’t show you the hills, but a spherical model with enough detail is far too much information. You like to avoid hills, so you need another model.

Using the examples above, I think we can learn:

  • We need models. A model is a synonym for an understanding
  • Multiple models of the same thing exist at the same time
  • New models should compliment existing ones
  • We should use the simplest model we can, but no simpler
  • We need awareness of other models
  • Believing in one true model is an Anti-Pattern
  • If you have an interest in a model being true (like a business selling flat earth maps) it could be hard to learn a new model. The greatest resistance against a new, different model may be those who currently benefit from an existing model.
  • All models are wrong, but some are useful. Is the only up-to date model of the earth the earth itself?

This cartoon shows Calvin explaining his simple model to his toy tiger.

Calvin-Toast

This model of how to make toast is sufficient unless:

  • Calvin starts to sell toast in his yard and
    • He may be asked to contribute towards the electricity bill
      • “There is electricity and you have to pay for it?!”
    • He may have to buy his own bread
      • “Can’t I reuse the bread I just put in somehow?!”
    • There is a drought and the price of bread rises
      • “So I’m losing money on everything I sell?!”

Systems Thinkers love models. It’s how we understand the world, and different perspectives and contexts.

We can also see that if you insist on using a simple model, for example one that will fit on a napkin, or can be explained to a 6 year old, then you can only use it in simple situations. More complicated systems need bigger models.

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2 thoughts on “Why we need Models, and why it’s hard to change them.

  1. Pingback: Strengths and Clean Language Workshops | Make 10 Louder

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