About models

To have a model of what is going on in a complex system is of vital importance. A model is simply a simplified picture of an existing or imagined reality, so that you can make prediction of what is going to happen in this complex reality by studying the model. In fact we humans can only think in terms of models. The reality is to complex to comprehend by our limited brain, so we make models of reality. Some models are good and useful, for instance Newtons model of gravity, other models are less useful, like thinking that star positions or gods run our lives in mysterious ways. Why is Newtons gravity model more useful then the astrology model or god model. It is not because gravity model is more true (I mean gravity is just a concept it’s not out there where you can see it or touch it) then god model. Instead it is more useful since you can predict better what will happen in the reality by using gravity model then the god model. Once again, models are not true, they are just more useful, more convenient. If two models predict the same thing, you should choose the simpler one. Because simpler is more convenient. Hence Kepler’s model did not predict better then Ptolemios’, but it was simpler, hece more convinient, hence more useful.

That is one of the better explanations for the concept behind Occam’s Razor that I have seen. In models, I see excessive complexity and reliance upon external assumptions as a function of inaccuracy. Thanks!

Makes me think of a colleague here, who told me the other day that she had been having fun, but enormous difficulty, trying to get young Chinese students to understand that “facts” are only things that we all agree on.

Or to put it in Relevance Theory terms, what we think we “know” is in fact a set of cognitive assumptions … and it is just as easy to arrive at, and hold, false assumptions as it is true assumptions.

Of course, I guess mathematicians would want to argue that mathematical theorems are facts and not assumptions, but for us hoi polloi, we believe we know things and …

… well, let’s just 'fess up and say, some years back I discovered that something I had believed to be true for around 50 years was in fact the diametric opposite of what was actually true.

I’m with you on this one, Bob.


Nah, the mathematicians start with a set of assumptions, too. If you change the assumptions you have to start over. Geometry is different on the surface of a sphere (like the Earth!) than it is on a flat sheet. And if they claim that everything else is provable given the assumptions, well, just mention Godel’s Theorem and watch them scramble for cover.

(Godel showed that in any sufficiently powerful formal system, it is possible to express true statements that are not provable in that system.)


I derived my idea of fact from its use in law, journalism, and science. The source of Latin factum is facere, to do or make. In law, a fact is a deed, object, or event. It happened in the past, and various witnesses attest to its doing or making. There are no future or present facts, only those that happen and are recorded or remembered.

So facts are not what “everyone agrees upon” at all. Everyone once agreed the earth was flat, a few thousand years old, and the center of the universe. Asserting that facts are socially constructed is the latest form of solipsism. Facts exist apart from our ideas of them. As we discover them, we learn.

I think your two paragraphs contradict each other. Once upon a time, those who denied that the earth was the center of the universe could expect to bring the full force of the law crashing down on their heads. Facts may not be socially constructed, but law certainly is. Historically (and all too recently), lawmakers have proven quite willing to redefine “facts” with little or no reference to objective reality.


Katherine wrote

My favorite – if “favorite” may be read as “most blatantly bogus” – example of fact redefining is the grotesque attempt by the Bush Administration to muzzle the EPA on carbon dioxide pollution. There’s a length summary of the situation at


Perhaps the most creative bit of fact juggling – we might call it “introducing a new paradigm” – was the plan to identify two diffferent sorts of CO2: the “bad sort” which comes from car exhaust, and the “not-nearly-so-bad sort” which comes from fossil-fuel power plants. You’ll never guess who has a long-standing personal and financial stake in the power-generating industry.


In a given situation, a certain model can be more useful than some other model. For instance, polar coordinate system can be more useful for some kind of problems the the Cartesian coordinate system. I remember one talk among Nobel prize winners in 1981. Roger Sperry maintained that Newton’s model was more useful then Einsteins relativity model, while the physicist claimed that Einstein’s model was more useful. From a logical point of view physicists were right, because Newton’s model is a limit case of Einstein’s. But from a practical point of view Sperry was right, because Newton’s model is simpler and more useful (for almost all every day physics). Similarly the flat earth model is more useful in most situation then sphere earth model. Like wise the god model can be more useful then Newton’s gravity model, in certain situations. Suppose that your loved one is about to die, or some similar event. The god model can give you comfort, while gravity model gives none.

What about the


The study of such a fake phenomenon that includes parameters such as “professional make up, photo shop enhancement, lighting, marketing, media buzz, run way, lingerie line, and product placement”.

I think the “super model” has had more money spent on the study of it more than any other model in existence.

But that is just my opinion…

Wock you rascal :wink: . Like most words, the word “model” has several meanings. I was using the word model in the meaning of

  1. a simplified description of a system or process.

You are using the word model in the meaning of

  1. an example to follow or imitate.

Sure, there are money to be made by showing people how to spend money by imitating others, but this thread is not about that. Okay :smiley:

How is the flat earth model more useful than the “sphere” model? Anyone that actually needs to utilise a large section of the globe either simultaneously or in a rapid sequence of time (airline route plotter), is going to drastically benefit from the sphere model. Someone plotting routes based on the assumption of a flat earth is going to waste enormous quantities of fuel, wear and tear, and crew hours, sending planes in “straight lines.” Anyone not working on a large global geographic scale has no use of any model at all. It doesn’t matter (to me) if the earth is triangular or flat or roughly spherical when I walk to the market. So how is the flat earth model of any more use than the spherical model? Why not just accept spherical? Afterall, when I look up I can see the shape of the earth in the cloud layer, across the moon, and in the diminished height of very distant objects.

The same argument goes to the physics of motion. Most people, even atheletes, have little use of intellectual models, accurate or inaccurate. Muscle memory and innate instinctual timing allow us to function in a world of “fuzzy physics” no matter how good our understanding of it is. The practical common day to day use of physics is largely divorced from the equations, and knowledge of the equations (whether Newtonian or Einsteinian) do not statistically increase physical aptitude. If you had both Einstein and Newton throw a rock, I doubt either could do a better job than an champion shotput. So then common practical use aside, the only people who benefit from precise physical models very much require the most accurate models available. Ballistics, space programs, super-collider construction and study, all of these things will benefit from the most accurate model available. Why settle for any less when the results can be anywhere from useless to catastrophic?

It seems to me, the only people who would “benefit” from faulty or inaccurate models are people that would otherwise have no use for them, but like to think about them anyway. Untrained people who like to read about quantum physics, superstrings, or macroeconomics, to mention a few.

That last one requires a slightly different rebuttal (and I won’t go into what gravity has to do it, as I don’t see how that is a valid argument/comparison). I think I like the answer given by Christopher Hitchens: When asked if a group of ten men were walking toward him on a street, if he would feel more comfortable knowing that those ten men had just come out of a prayer meeting, his response was that he would immediately feel much more endangered, and went on to list the majority of places in the world where men coming out of prayer meetings can be a dangerous time to be out and about; and that he has personally been to all of those places and experienced that fear. The point is: Belief is often touted as being beneficial for comfort reasons, such as the one you provided, or the often inaccurately understood “opiate of the masses” quotation, but the whole impact of belief and faith has, in my opinion, demonstrated itself repeatedly to be harmful to the self and society. That very comfort that you brought up is just the philosophy employed by those willing to concede the loss of life for a greater purpose, and softening the impact of mass slaughter with the knowledge that either (A) the slaughtered deserved to die based on some contradictory belief system (or lack thereof), or (B) the slaughtered are not really slaughtered and their deaths have (B1) relieved them of this miserable life and put them in a better one & (B2) hastened the apocalypse which in turn brings about the “better one” for the whole planet.

You might say that is an extremist or fundamentalist outcome of the comfort belief, and I would agree, but it would be folly to deny that it does not exist, or that it has no great impact on the world’s political, military, and economic health. To crank it down a notch to the non-fundamentalist: The comfort belief of an afterlife greatly and negatively influences that philosophy and psychological approach to society, environmental ecology, personal and societal responsibility, just to name a few. If the planet is only a few thousand years old and a new one will be made after the great judgement, why conserve? Why treasure every resource and learn to live responsibly and sustainably when it is all just going to be magically regenerated when the white-bearded one says Abracadbra? Is it a mere coincidence that right-wing fundamentalism and greed-based economic theories thrive together? Absolutely not.

There are a thousand other things that could be said regarding this. The primary point I wished to make is that adherance to an incorrect model for the sake of convenience, comfort, or mental apathy are hardly good examples of usefulness, and most certainly they are not good examples of global responsibility. It could be said, and I would nominally agree, that most turmoil, waste, greed, and disharmony are the direct results of innacurate modelling—not intentionally mind you, though that can be the case as well.

In short: I would myself feel much more comfortable if I knew those ten men were pronounced atheists. I feel much more comfortable knowing that the airplane I’m flying is was produced using the most advanced models available, routed using the best understanding of science and economy. Meanwhile, and generally speaking, the people who adhere to inaccurate models (whether knowingly or not) very often frighten me to the core; as individuals and as clusters, super-clusters, societies, and ideologies.

If you are building a house, you most probably use flat earth model. You make walls parallel, even though they should not be if the Earth’s curvature is taken into account. Earth as a sphere just confuses things. Flat Earth model is much simpler and adequate for this situation. :smiley:

(All people use models, even if they are not aware of using models in a formal way. Why, because thinking IS using models).

If you are shooting ballistics you are most probably modeling Earth as a sphere, but you are not using Einstein’s relativity theory, instead you are using Newton’s theory, which is much simpler and adequate for the situation. :smiley:

Actually Bob my model was one of unobtainable and fictional Beauty.

An example of where the presented model is actually “better” than actual person due to imaginative enhancements. The model is a representation of a product. The woman is the facade the product rests upon. The product is the actual selling point. The woman is used to show or “model” the product on a living person or a simplified graphical representation of the finished product as a whole. The marketing aspect is using fictional methods to “enhance” the facade to achieve “perfection” in that simplified representation. In the end the process of presenting “beauty” on a perfected “model” presents a simplified system that if you purchase said product you will obtain said beauty. :slight_smile:

As to your discussion a model is not always a simplified representation. Sometimes the model is more complex than the object or idea the model was made to represent.

One would be a “what if” model scenario of a large structure and the effects of a natural disaster (computer model). The model is actually more complex than what it is built to represent because it takes into account “what if scenarios” which if have never happened in that area do not fully exist yet.


My point was: You wouldn’t be using either model at all. Neither is more useful at that level. The physics of friction, fastening, and vectoring are more important. Building a skyscraper would be another matter, but in that case it is better to not make any simplifications or assumptions about geology and a host of other things. These models do have usefulness, and the moment they acquire usefulness it is more prudent to go with what is most accurate. That statement makes no assumption regarding the opposite direction.

That was my whole point: The threshold of usefulness coincides with the threshold of accuracy. A guy building a shed doesn’t need to think of the shape of earth: Neither model is useful at all. It is like gravity and belief. Why would one think of gravity to solve sorrow? I am not sure why you used that example, but it turns out a good analogy for my case.

Absolutely, but the argument of models as abstractions and thought constructs is only dimly related to the usefulness of inadequate models. I’ll come back to that in a bit.

Again, the threshold of usefulness. You are not arguing against my point, just moving the bar around. The ballistics example is no different than the guy building a shed example. If you do not need Einsteinian relativity that does not automatically make a more faulty model more useful! You simply do not use any model on that level of governance at all.

Somebody shooting a small calibre rifle at a range of 75 meters is utilising basic ballistics such as drop rate, but does not require advanced mathematics, meteorology, and understanding of such things as the Coriolis Effect to hit the target—whereas a sniper operating at a distance of 1,500 meters most definitely will be. That the person firing the .22 does not need to know everything an expert sniper does, does not make the absence of that knowledge more useful—just irrelevant to the shot.

The key point here is even though complexity is not always useful, that does not automatically make simplification useful, it just makes complexity useless. There is quite a lot of difference between useless complexity and useful inaccuracy.

The only usefulness for inaccurate, abstracted, or simplified models is for armchair thinkers to pontificate to one another. One reads a book explaining super-strings in language a seventh grader can understand, and other has read enough to follow along and carry the discussion—this abstracted “false” understanding of superstrings is useful to engage in conversation, but that’s about it. They’ll never do anything in that field of research; they’ll never apply that knowledge to their daily lives. But this form of abstracted understanding does not have the same usefulness threshold that practical models do, and that is critical to understanding the difference between the two.

Comparing practical modelling (turning a key in a lock as opposed to mentally and physically willing every atomic particle involved in the process) to usefulness modelling is like comparing theoretical analysis like Wock brought up to retrospective analysis. They both may handle similar (or the same) data sets, but their purpose and functioning are entirely different.

Ah, you almost got me there. First a real natural disaster has an infinity of aspects that no computer model (which is finite by the nature) can represent. Second if you look carefully at the definition in my first post:

As you see, I do also include an imagined reality, which covers the “what if” aspects that you refer to. :wink:

When a loved one dies, science and thinking has no good answers to give. The god can mean many things to different people, but to me it means that which is beyond thinking. The only way you can overcome such a blow is to transcendent the event. Of course, this will not happen immediately or through thinking, but it can happen after a couple of years if you don’t cling to much to your thoughts. So this god model (which is really a lack of model, since it goes beyond thinking) could be useful.

For other people god means other things than to me, but I’m pretty sure that if they really believe in god (whatever the meaning they give that word), it can help them to overcome such tragic events.

The god can mean many things
model can mean many things …

and Mange can mean many things, although in Danish it only means many. :smiley:

I’m Mange to my friends and here at Lit&Lat we’re all friends, right? But it’s actually Magnus and we all know what that means … right? :smiley:

The process of birth, life, and death are all equally profound and beautiful all by themselves. It is not more useful to deny their existence (which is what the afterlife notion is doing) because of all of the other ramifications of this belief system, as expanded upon in prior thoughts. Whenever a relative has died, I have not once felt the need to demand answers of anything or anyone, much less some “anti-model” simplification of natural laws and observable science.

The external ramifications of “use” cannot be understated, but I see you have set them aside despite that and chosen to focus on the direct use case. Analysing the use case without context is, like many other simplifications, useless.

A simple analogy would be the usefulness of propaganda and fear by a dictator to shape and control the individuals under control to do things (or avoid doing things) that they would otherwise not abide to. To a dictator, it is useful to subject individuals to a simplified or erroneous model. But this use cannot be looked at by itself and judged as useful. It fails to take into account the many factors involved in large-scale repression, let alone the targeted people or nations external to the dictatorship’s repressed population. On the larger scale, it is not useful at all.

Likewise, you cannot ignore the larger impact of belief systems and choose to just cherry-pick the functions that appeal to a certain use case, ignoring the rest. Now I myself would question whether or not these functions are even useful without the context. Believing that daddy is now a musk ox, or that daddy now has his own planet, or that daddy is now ephemerally floating around the old house writing messages in blood and banging dishes to scare you doesn’t really increase or decrease the coping process. Knowing that death is final, or knowing that death is not final does not change the actual circumstance of loss. I’ve never seen any studies done on it, but I would be surprised if anything showed belief in afterlife as having a credible “fast-track” to recovery—and in some cases I would imagine it is even worse, as some belief structures drag on the death process and twilight after-life process on and on, and indeed survivors of the deceased may spend the rest of their lives pleading and praying to ancestors long dead.

How is this any better than accepting that the cycle of life, all parts of it, are a beautiful process which has resulted in the many variations and forms of life that we can observe around us? Nothing that we have today would exist if death and birth did not continually refine Earth and its contents. When my last relative died a few months ago, I wasn’t sad at all, I was very glad that she had a good life and that she added a touch of uniqueness to the world in her time. I haven’t once needed answers, or selfishly wished she were still alive. I miss her, sure, but I have no need to take it back; or to transcend what I can observe with my senses.

I am not trying to “convert” you to atheism. What I am attempting to point out here is that your method is no more useful than my method at coping. You have made the claim that “any anti-model” is better than “no anti-model” and I am providing evidence contrary to that. My lack of an anti-model makes all parts of life wonderful, and requires no arbitrary simplification for the sake of assigning value or meaning to things which require no such assignment.

So to universally declare that a simplification of reality into a model which has no (and by definition cannot have any) proof is good for the mind during periods of suffering, is a false declaration. Science and thinking had everything to do with coping with the loss; rapidly and healthily. What you are referring to is merely a matter of personal preference, and you would have a hard time convincing me that preference falls under the remit of usefulness, except in that the basic state of preferences are generally required of functional intelligent minds—but no particular preference within the need for preferences is any more useful than another. That is what makes things subjective—the very inability to measure usefulness between states.

And with that we get back to my original rebuttal: You are stating that any model is better than no model, and I absolutely disagree. There is no reason to shuffle false models (like flat earth) into the mix when no large-scale model is relevant. A house is going hold itself up against gravity whether or not you were thinking about spheres or discs while building it. You say building a house is using a flat earth model—how can you say that when we have billions of houses all over a spherical world. They are obviously repelling a spherical model gravity field just fine. Likewise, I myself see no reason to pretend (as that is what it would be to me) that there is some afterlife to make coping with loss easier. Neither changes the fact that houses stay up fine on a globe and I’ll get over the loss with time.

If you want to say that it is fun to visualise reality in a variety of more or less accurate models, I’ll completely agree with you! But on the matter of actual usefulness, you don’t have me convinced.