Model Building or "Mapping" Reality

In a book titled Scientific Literacy and the Myth of the Scientific Method (1992) Henry H. Bauer offered three metaphors to sum up the activities of scientists.

What three metaphors did Bauer use to describe the activities of scientists?

The puzzle :scientists are largely motivated by puzzle solving. They want to explain things that are strange or unexplained. They gain satisfaction from achieving new insights into how things work.

The filter: scientists start with lots of different ideas, particularly in frontier areas where there are puzzles to be solved. Many ideas are eventually disproved. Scientists try to filter out misleading and false claims.

The map: scientific theories are like maps. They preserve information about selected portions of reality. Like maps, they are schematic (incomplete or "skeletal") but extremely useful in particular situations.

The map metaphor is potentially very deep. It can be used to draw attention to several important facts about scientific theories:

Not even the best map is complete. Our theories never capture the full complexity of any system in the universe, nor are they intended to. No model contains as much detail as the system being modeled.

Moral: You can expect a theory to be accurate but you cannot expect it to be complete .

How is the map metaphor instructive?

Maps come in specialized varieties that are superior for different purposes. If you need to know about land elevations, you use a topographical map. If you need to travel on a highway system, you use a road map. If you need to predict the weather, you use a weather map. Even if they refer to the same area of land, these maps look different because they are designed to highlight different sorts of information. Similarly, there are many different scientific theories in psychology. No one theory covers all situations. But this does not mean all maps are equal. Some are definitely superior for particular purposes. You would not want to drive across the country using a weather map instead of a road map.

Moral: there might be many different theories about a subject, all useful at different times, but one might be clearly superior for a particular task.

All different maps should be consistent with each other, and none should contradict each other. There should be nothing in a topographical map (showing land elevations) that contradicts what you see in a road map or a weather map. Similarly, nothing you learn in physics should contradict what you learn in psychology, or biology, or chemistry, or geology. Scientific theories describe different aspects of the same reality. The maps should fit together and be mutually consistent, while emphasizing different types of information

Moral: there is room for many different scientific theories, but none should contradict any of the others.

When errors occur in maps, they can be corrected by gathering data. Suppose you found that two maps of the same territory did contradict each other. This can happen with road maps, not only because of accidental errors, but also because mapmakers sometimes deliberately insert a non-existent road into a map so they can tell if another company has copied their map and infringed upon their copyright. (We found some non-existent roads in a map of our town, shown here.) If two maps disagree, then one of them must be wrong. You can resolve the issue by gathering data. For example, you could go to the site of the mystery roads and see if they are really there. The same is true of scientific theories.

Non-existent roads

Moral: when theories contradict each other, the difference can be resolved by gathering evidence.

Even the best maps must be continually updated and corrected. Scientific theories in an area of lively research never stand still for long. One scientist estimated that the average lifespan of a modern scientific theory in the life sciences (such as biology, genetics, or neuroscience) is about three years. After that, there are new findings or details to be added or major changes to be made. This might sound discouraging if you just worked for years to publish a scientific paper, but it is the sign of an active and developing science. If you can use a 10-year-old map to navigate around a city, the city must not be growing. If theories stay the same for many years, it may indicate a stagnant area of research. If theories change, that indicates people are finding out new things.

Moral: Even good theories become obsolete and outdated. Scientists continually look for new and more accurate information.

How is science unique among systems of thought?

This last point relates to a unique characteristic of science, one which sets it apart from all the other ideologies and belief systems in the world. It tries to change itself. Most idea systems are aimed at preserving a particular way of looking at things. Science is not devoted to any particular point of view, although individual scientists might be. Science as an institution aims at accuracy, not dogma (ideas which cannot be challenged). If new research forces a re-examination of old ideas, that is considered a plus, not a minus. In this sense, science is a self-correcting system. It has numerous ways of testing its own ideas and assumptions, changing them if necessary.

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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey