finnish models

The statistician George Box once remarked: ‘All models are wrong, but some models are useful’. It is a common, albeit understandable, mistake by empiricists to think that a model is flawed if it does not incorporate all the features known to influence an evolutionary or ecological process. When such an argument is taken to the extreme, it is easy to see why it becomes untenable.

My own favourite example is a map of a countryside. Maps are models that are designed to help us grasp certain features of the landscape. For example, a map might consist of contour lines which help us predict which way a river will flow once we stumble across it. But a map would become completely useless if it had every tuft of grass marked on it...

In other words, staring at a too detailed model teaches us nothing more than staring at the original ecosystem, with its complete mess of evolutionary and ecological detail.