On better useful than right

At this point I can no longer remember the when/where/why of my encountering this simple quote from the British statistician George Box. But the raucous cheering that erupted in the recesses of my brain still echoes. So much import across nine simple words:

All models are wrong, but some models are useful.

Of course the model/framework/typology/whatever has flaws and gaps. If it were completely aligned with reality, then it would be reality. But it's not. To quote the Pythons, “it's only a model”. And to insist that it be “right” in all conditions is just a silly attempt to evade dealing with the usefulness of the model in question for addressing the situation at hand.

I've been in far too many meetings that ran aground in a familiar pattern: The team faces some murky challenge, not well defined and not yielding to any readily apparent solution. Somebody proposes a framework for structuring the discussion, to break down the challenge at hand. Others protest, pointing out holes in the framework, a few of them perhaps advocating an alternative model. The debate continues, each side erecting fortifications of argumentation. Then “bing”, times up. And so the meeting ends with zero movement against the murky challenge, progress once again losing to process.

Rather than bickering about whether a model is right or wrong, is or is not accurate 100% of the time, accept that it isn't and move on. On to the much more important question: Is it useful enough to be of value?

Many of the posts in BrainCrossing are built around the application of models. Lifting frameworks or mental tools from one context and finding value for them in other domains. Or mashing two models together to create something of greater applicability. In all such cases, please keep the Box quote in mind.

I'll close with an excerpt from Neil Gershenfeld's Truth is a Model post on edge.org:

Building models is very different from proclaiming truths. It's a never-ending process of discovery and refinement, not a war to win or destination to reach. Uncertainty is intrinsic to the process of finding out what you don't know, not a weakness to avoid.