“All models are wrong, but some are useful”: Man’s Journey to Make Sense of the World

All models are wrong, but some are useful.

George Edward Pelham Box, British statistician

This quote by a British statistician is, arguably, not limited to describing statistical models. Every thought we have shapes our map (mental model) of the territory (how the world works).

An article on the rationalist blog Less Wrong believes the “abstract concept of ‘truth” is better thought of as “the general idea of a map-territory correspondence“.

The map is not the territory” is a core mental model:

The map of reality is not reality…If a map were to represent the territory with perfect fidelity, it would no longer be a reduction and thus would no longer be useful to us.

Farnam Street blog, “The Map Is Not the Territory

This is the paradoxical takeaway: the flaw & value of the map both lie in it being a reduction of reality. On one hand, every reduction is a conscious decision to be imprecise – some information is inevitably lost. On the other hand, compression is what makes it of use to us: focusing on what is the most important (or per the 80/20 rule, focus on the 20% that yields 80% value) allows us to maximize the value density of information we have, i.e., think of it as value per “unit storage space” of information.

I could not attribute the source of this – but someone said: the world always makes sense. If you think something “does not make sense”, what really does not make sense is your model of the world.

For those who are into rationality & critical thinking, I highly recommend this fanfiction: Harry Potter & the Methods of Rationality – after all, what could be a more fun way to learn about something than mixing it with magic? 🙂

Here is a quote from the fiction: “I ask the fundamental question of rationality: Why do you believe what you believe? What do you think you know and how do you think you know it?

As the author wrote in another post: “We need the word ‘rational‘ in order to talk about cognitive algorithms or mental processes with the property ‘systematically increases map-territory correspondence‘(epistemic rationality) or ‘systematically finds a better path to goals‘ (instrumental rationality).

Striving to be rational means striving to improve map-territory correspondence, while acknowledging we could aim to be less wrong but never completely right. This recipe of curiosity plus humility combo is what powers us to build a model that is inevitably wrong, but hopefully helpful.

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