Archive for George Box

All models are wrong

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 17, 2013 by telescoper

I’m back in Cardiff for the day, mainly for the purpose of attending presentations by a group of final-year project students (two of them under my supervision, albeit now remotely).  One of the talks featured a famous quote by the statistician George E.P. Box:

Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful.

I agree with this, actually, but only if it’s not interpreted in a way that suggests that there’s no such thing as reality and/or that science is just a game.  We may never achieve a perfect understanding of how the Universe works, but that’s not the same as not knowing anything at all. 

A familiar example that nicely illustrates my point  is the London Underground or Tube map. There is a fascinating website depicting the evolutionary history of this famous piece of graphic design. Early versions simply portrayed the railway lines inset into a normal geographical map which made them rather complicated, as the real layout of the lines is far from regular. A geographically accurate depiction of the modern tube network is shown here which makes the point:


A revolution occurred in 1933 when Harry Beck compiled the first “modern” version of the map. His great idea was to simplify the representation of the network around a single unifying feature. To this end he turned the Central Line (in red) into a straight line travelling left to right across the centre of the page, only changing direction at the extremities. All other lines were also distorted to run basically either North-South or East-West and produce a much more regular pattern, abandoning any attempt to represent the “real” geometry of the system but preserving its topology (i.e. its connectivity).  Here is an early version of his beautiful construction:

Note that although this a “modern” map in terms of how it represents the layout, it does look rather dated in terms of other design elements such as the border and typefaces used. We tend not to notice how much we surround the essential things with embellishments that date very quickly.

More modern versions of this map that you can get at tube stations and the like rather spoil the idea by introducing a kink in the central line to accommodate the complexity of the interchange between Bank and Monument stations as well as generally buggering about with the predominantly  rectilinear arrangement of the previous design:

I quite often use this map when I’m giving popular talks about physics. I think it illustrates quite nicely some of the philosophical issues related with theoretical representations of nature. I think of theories or models as being like maps, i.e. as attempts to make a useful representation of some  aspects of external reality. By useful, I mean the things we can use to make tests. However, there is a persistent tendency for some scientists to confuse the theory and the reality it is supposed to describe, especially a tendency to assert there is a one-to-one relationship between all elements of reality and the corresponding elements in the theoretical picture. This confusion was stated most succintly by the Polish scientist Alfred Korzybski in his memorable aphorism :

The map is not the territory.

I see this problem written particularly large with those physicists who persistently identify the landscape of string-theoretical possibilities with a multiverse of physically existing domains in which all these are realised. Of course, the Universe might be like that but it’s by no means clear to me that it has to be. I think we just don’t know what we’re doing well enough to know as much as we like to think we do.

A theory is also surrounded by a penumbra of non-testable elements, including those concepts that we use to translate the mathematical language of physics into everday words. We shouldn’t forget that many equations of physics have survived for a long time, but their interpretation has changed radically over the years.

The inevitable gap that lies between theory and reality does not mean that physics is a useless waste of time, it just means that its scope is limited. The Tube  map is not complete or accurate in all respects, but it’s excellent for what it was made for. Physics goes down the tubes when it loses sight of its key requirement, i.e. to be testable, and in order to be testable it has to be simple enough to calculate things to be compared with observations. In many cases that means a simplified model is perfectly adequete.

Another quote by George Box expands upon this point:

Remember that all models are wrong; the practical question is how wrong do they have to be to not be useful.

In any case, an attempt to make a grand unified theory of the London Underground system would no doubt produce a monstrous thing so unwieldly that it would be useless in practice. I think there’s a lesson there for string theorists too…

Many modern-day physicists are obsessed with the idea of a “Theory of Everything” (or TOE). Such a theory would entail the unification of all physical theories – all laws of Nature, if you like – into a single principle. An equally accurate description would then be available, in a single formula, of phenomena that are currently described by distinct theories with separate sets of parameters. Instead of textbooks on mechanics, quantum theory, gravity, electromagnetism, and so on, physics students would need just one book. But would such a theory somehow be  physical reality, as some physicists assert? I don’t think so. In fact it’s by no means clear to me that it would even be useful..