It’s time for anothe installment of “Ask a ScienceBlogger”. This week’s question:
If you could shake the public and make them understand one scientific idea, what would it be?
Here, because others have already snagged my standard answer to this question, and because I’ve already embraced unrealistically high expectations in the last 24 hours, I’m going to opt for something a little more challenging.
I want the public to understand something about how science uses models.
When scientists are trying to understand systems and phenomena, they turn to models. A model is a simplified version of the complicated reality. Often, a model will leave a lot of details from the real system out to look at what the bits that remain do and how they fit together. Sometimes, a model will posit analogues to stuff we understand fairly well (like Tinkertoy connectors or springs) to account for the behavior of stuff that is quite different (like bonds between atoms in molecules). Models can help us make predictions, some pretty rough and others reasonably accurate. Models can help us identify the crucial features of a system without which the exciting effects wouldn’t happen. Models can give us a hope of understanding phenomena where there’s so much going on that our little brains feel like they’re going to explode.
The tricky thing about models is that, while they aren’t the truth with a capital-T, they capture something true.
Scientists know that models are some distance from reality, but they test the heck out of them. They want the model to get the piece of reality it’s supposed to capture just right, and they have little patience for bad models.
Understanding all the ins and outs of just how models work is a fairly intense philosophical question — I’m not expecting the public to have complete comprehension of a question I’m working on myself as part of my day job. But for the public to grasp at least a bit of the role modeling plays in the scientific project of making sense of a complicated world would be a good thing.