On the most recent episode of the Don’t Panic Geocast, Shannon Dulin said something along the lines of, “all models are wrong.” Our minds are not perfect replications of reality. They operate on models that explain and to some extent predict reality, but what takes place within our mental models is not actually what happens in reality.
Think of a map. A super simple map doesn’t match the bend in each road perfectly. It doesn’t give you a sense of elevation. It is a model for the area you are interested in traversing with the aid of the map. On the other end, most accurate possible model of the area would be a complete and perfect replication of the area, but of course that would be of no use in helping us better understand and navigate the area. Our mental models are just like these maps. They simplify, cut out some of the clutter, and reduce some of the unique of aspects of reality to give us a more manageable picture and sense of direction. Our mental model is not a perfect replication of reality. Our model is wrong because the only way for it to be right would be for it to be a perfect replication which would be too complex for our minds.
Given that models are wrong, but that we need them because we need to simplify in order to think, it is important that we constantly explore to better understand what does and does not need to be in our mental models. Along the same thought lines, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “what is important is to get to know as many different approaches as possible and to ask the right questions,” in his book Sapiens.
We can focus on any given area, from earthquakes, to human happiness, to minimum wage laws and adopt rigid conclusions based on our mental models for understanding the world. But those conclusions are almost certainly wrong because our mental models are almost certainly insufficient and wrong. Getting locked in on a singular mental model or idea will lead us to rigid conclusions that don’t accurately match reality. To get beyond this we need to be able to gather various perspectives and points of view. Not just on a single issue or idea, but on topic. We have to be willing to rethink any mental model that operates in our mind. We need to hone, refine, and adjust mental models with a spirit of exploration and research. Only by trying many different models and combinations will we start to know what is important and what can be stripped out of our model. We have to do this, because we will always rely on mental models to understand the world, and having a wrong model means we misunderstand reality and means we will make poor judgments and decisions that will impact the real world in a negative way.