Models, Science & Usefulness


“Remember that all models are wrong; the practical question is how wrong do they have to be to not be useful.” – George E. P. Box.

Science is great. Really it is. I feel it is misunderstood by many people, and misused by even more. The issue is most people don’t seem to actually understand the basis of science and statistics. I won’t go into it here, don’t worry. However, I will write about usefulness.

Humans are pretty smart. We realised a long time ago that in order to have a baby, you had to have sex (immaculate conceptions notwithstanding). We knew that the man had to have an orgasm for certain bodily fluids to be ejected, while it wasn’t necessary for the women (evolution was not fair in this regard). We might have cottoned on to the fact that at certain times during a women’s cycle we were more likely to get a pregnancy. Did we know exactly why? Did we understand about sperm? Did we know about hormonal fluctuations? No.

If you know the detailed physiology and anatomy of the reproductive system, does it help you to be better at sex? No. Does it help you get pregnant more easily? No.

We now have IVF, which had been a blessing to many (especially as fertility rates are dropping). We have contraceptive pills and viagra. Those things have been developed either by accident (Viagra was originally developed as heart medication) or deliberately. But by people in highly specialised roles and jobs. To them, this knowledge is useful, to 99% of the population it is not.

We had a useful conceptual models (excuse the pun): Babies are produced as a product of having sex. Not always, sometimes. That conceptual model is still extremely accurate and useful.

Now things like the birthing process, knowledge has helped make our midwife practices more effective. We are better at keeping women (and babies) alive. But the knowledge of how we do that, is useful for medical professionals. Most people don’t want or need to know too much, but what they do know has to be useful.

Sometimes knowing why we do something helps you understand its purpose and makes it more likely you will adhere to it. Like knowing why wearing condoms is important if you have casual sex with someone, makes you more likely to use a condom. That knowledge is still useful.

But models (and metaphors) are often more useful. They can help us simply model something without being dragged down into the details. My favourite example of this is the OODA loop, developed by military strategist John Boyd: OODA stands for Observe, Orientate, Decide, Act. It represents a simple cyclical model for human decision making. Originally developed to help fighter pilots, their role is to ‘get inside’ the opponents decision making cycle to gain advantage. No complex psychological analysis or behavioural observations, just a simple model. It doesn’t mean it’s ‘right’, but it is very useful.

The same thing with many movements or treatments or understanding of pain science. A good cue for an exercise doesn’t have to be perfect, just useful. A good metaphor can clarify an understanding of science, some of the best scientists have used them to help deepen understanding (Feynman was a master of metaphor and analogy).

The problem we face, as professionals, is that we want to be useful to our patients & clients. But there are many professional who believe these models are ‘true’, and not just useful models. They sell their approaches like they hold some secret truth. But they must recognise that these things exist as brands. Rather than truths. Yoga or Pilates? Anatomy Trains or The Joint-by-joint approach? Fascia or Muscle? Adidas or Nike? Who cares.

If you’re diverging from good research and evidence, don’t be surprised if people discredit or criticise you. If you can support your claims with good evidence and research – good stuff. Just don’t stop learning and improving.

And make sure you patients & clients learn to take care of their bodies by doing the basics, regardless of the brands you identify with: Eating well, moving well and moving often.

And if you’re not a heathlcare or fitness professional:

– Eat well, move well & move often.

– Your body is strong, it’s not fragile.

– Strength training is useful, please do it.

– Smile, play & be grateful.


Thanks for reading, move well.