Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Advantages and disadvantages of modelling

Ludwig von Bertalanffy writes about any attempt to model Nature and its constituents:

"Conceptual models which, in simplified and therefore comprehensible form, try to represent certain aspects of reality, are basic in any attempt at theory; whether we apply the Newtonian model in mechanics, the model of corpuscle or wave in atomic physics, use simplified models to describe the growth of a population, or the model of a game to describe political decisions. The advantages and dangers of models are well known. The advantage is in the fact that this is the way to create a theory -i.e. the model permits deductions from premises, explanation and prediction, with often unexpected results. The danger is oversimplification: to make it conceptually controllable we have to reduce reality to a conceptual skeleton- the question remaining whether, in doing so, we have not cut out vital parts of the anatomy. The danger of oversimplification is the greater the more multifarious and complex the phenomenon is. This applies not only to «grand theories» of culture and history but to models we find in any psychological or sociological journal.
Ludwig von Bertalanffy, General system theory, Chapter 8

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Congratulations Cam!

Jerome's blue machine,
plus two crazy odd-speaking kin.
A new life in the Hawaiian kingdom,
A feeling that this land speaks to his spirit,
that he is not alone, can't you see it?
Go far far away, my dear Canadian,
your heart will always pulse
this island, its first wave at dawn
or the last one at dusk.
Ho'omaika'i 'ana
Mau Loa

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

A letter to Nicolas Sarkozy

He presented himself as the candidate of change,
and promised to make France finally a modern land.
A land which, like a femme fatale, has to accept the new law of the invisible hand.
A doctor with a new drug.
Not curing the cause but only hiding the symptoms.
A psychological disease anyway.
Maybe even caused by the doctors themselves, eager to copy what others are doing.

The candidate of change,
the light to illuminate the dark corridors of globalism that France does not dare to walk in.

And we discussed. And we discussed.
About how France can undertake a smooth but nonetheless deep reform.
To finally arrive to the shores of modernity, with its wisdom of crowds, its rationalized happiness,
the freedom of all, the American dream, the spotless society where theory, the capitalist one,
can finally triumph in a field deserted by its opponents.

Ah, soon the dream! as Nicolas Sarkozy promised.

And now?
Well, apparently, modernity starts by a love affair. Typically french or stupidly anglo-sexist?
They say stubborness of unjust media driven by the primal curiosity of the people. What else can it be?

Can it be that this is it? The promise is being fulfilled? The minds are being changed? And France is finally brainwashed from its rationale and intellectual political life which has always been only a drag to its economy... The ships of modernity are arriving from the cliffs of Dover and the harbors of Maine. The best of them have left their home land to preach the good word. They are here. Pictures are everywhere, rumors of marriage are on every lip, from Calcutta to Buenos Aires. This is what the world needs, this is what the world needed, at least this is what they say. Modernity is here. The drug has arrived. French can finally have an artificial smile on their face. They can finally claim that they are happy and join the legions of other zombies.

Happiness is here. Our problems have disappeared. Thanks Nicolas and Carla.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

A debate between theory and observations?

It seems that there is in academia some debate opposing the theoreticians on one side and the observers on the other, between the creator of ideas and the gatherer of empirical data. And the debate questions which ones are the most useful to science, which ones do not spend his time and people's money on futile work.

I am afraid that such debate is nothing less than another victim of human's favorite game to create divisions where there is none. For instance, Ludwig von Bertalanffy amuses himself in noting how much theory there is actually behind any observations:

"According to widespread opinion, there is a fundamental distinction between «observed facts» on the one hand-which are the unquestionable rock bottom of science and should be collected in the greatest possible number and printed in scientific journals-and «mere theory» on the other hand, which is the product of speculation and more or less suspect. I think the first point I should emphasize is that such antithesis does not exist. As a matter of fact, when you take supposedly simple data in our field [...,] it would take hours to unravel the enormous amount of theoretical presuppositions which are necessary to form these concepts [...].
Thus even supposedly unadulterated facts of observation already are interfused with all sorts of conceptual pictures, model concepts, theories or whatever expression you choose. The choice is not whether to remain in the field of data or to theorize; the choice is only between models that are more or less abstract, generalized, near or more remote from direct observation, more or less suitable to represent observed phenomena.
On the other hand, one should not take scientific models too seriously. [...] I believe a certain amount of intellectual humility, lack of dogmatism, and good humor may go a long way to facilitate otherwise embittered debates about scientific theories and models."
Ludwig von Bertalanffy, General system theory, Chapter 7.