Otago Polytechnic

Our theories to explain the world are flawed because our understanding is incomplete.

Human beings naturally search for patterns to explain the world around us, for example climate systems, and the behaviour of groups of people. The models we develop can be very useful to understand what is happening and why, but when we also rely on them to predict what is going to happen they can disappoint us. Henk Roodt, an Academic Facilitator at Capable NZ, explains why.

To a greater or lesser extent models rely on assumptions, for example about the nature of the relationship between two things that are happening at the same time or otherwise seem to be connected somehow. Some models are not able to independently verified or validated. Human beings also have an inbuilt confidence that what we think must be right. To guard against our own hubris, Henk recommends that we do the following:

  • Identify and disclose all the assumptions we are relying on in any model we are putting forward.
  • Be humble and willing to learn, admitting when we get it wrong and taking those opportunities to refine our understanding and our models.
  • Be imaginative, push boundaries, and seek to continuously improve our understanding of our world and ourselves.

These principles will help ensure that the models we develop are useful without leading us astray.

July 2020 

Image credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, used under Creative Commons licence CC BY 2.0