The Fiction in Science

   “All models are wrong, but some are useful”– statistician George E. P. Box

Scientific representations are different than the things they represent. A representation, model or description is a limited view of the subject, made for a specific purpose, edited by the scientist and translated into a form the scientific audience can understand and use. As scientific representations are made by and for humans, they are part about the scientific subject and part about the humans using them.

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A world map is a useful device, but one with a plethora of differences than what it represents. To start with the obvious, the world isn’t flat and it isn’t paper thin. These unrealistic qualities are for the convenience of the user.

For easy understanding, maps are artificially colored and marked (latitude and longitudes lines, for example). Road maps usually make roads appear proportionally wider than in reality, and remove unwanted details.

All world maps have proportional distortions. For an example see the map on the following page. Translating anything three dimensional into two dimensions requires distortions, as three dimensions and two dimensions are mutually exclusive. Compare your world map at home to a globe and see the differences for yourself. There are different methods of mapping the earth, each method creating its own distortions.

Distortions on maps. As with all types of world maps, this common mercator projection map has significant distortions. Greenland is incorrectly shown as being bigger than Africa. Alaska is shown as being as large as Brazil, when Brazil is really multiple times larger.

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The above representation of an atom is different than a real atom in an abundance of major ways. To start, it’s thousands and thousands of times larger than a real atom. If it wasn’t you couldn’t see it.

The representation hardy resembles an atom, and the artist would agree. The intent was to make a dummy model for students to learn about the different atomic ‘parts.’ The unreal balls, outer ring and cartoonish appearance are designed to engage the audience, simplify things.

As with the map, this representation is part about the subject and part about humans. It is in a form students can understand. In this case the form students understand looks more like a Saturday morning cartoon character than an atom.

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 Any human representation of something complex (and all things are complex) is simplified and distorted, focusing on a specific area, quality, layer or angle, made from a limited amount of information, interpreted by the maker’s sensibilities, presented in a way the maker and audience can understand.

As a means of communication, a representation will include conceits of the scientist, audience and even general culture. These conceits include expected form (pie charts, graphs, book, magazine article), style, shape, measurement method (volume, height, meters, liters), color associations (hot = red, cold = blue, forest = green).

It is similar to art, where following the genre’s conceits, even shallow ones, are constraining but necessary for communication. The conceits create an artificial representation, but without them you might as well be communicating in a foreign language.

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Just as the creation and perception of art involves human psychology, so does the creation and perception of scientific representations.

Whether they admit it or not, scientists and philosophers view the universe and the things in it psychologically. A scientist and his work can no more escape human psychology than the scientist can escape being human.

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All one has to do is to look at a scientific representation, any representation, and find the human imprint- the human sensibility in form, style, color, language, balance, aesthetic choice. A representation of water may be a magazine article in English. English language and magazine articles, of course, have to do with humans and communication between humans. The article’s subject may be about water, but its form is human. The article will be read as a work of human literature, as it is a work of human literature. As an artifact, the article shows about as much about humans as it does about water.

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This illustrates an essential human problem that goes beyond science. Humans must translate a subject to understand it, but what they understand is the translation.

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 A scientific representation is a product of the scientist’s purpose. A different purpose will produce a different representation of the same subject.

I own three maps of North America. One represents the altitude (mountains, valleys, etc), one shows the traditional aboriginal tribal regions and one is a road map. Even though they are of the identical place, each map is different. It’s not so much whether the maps are right or wrong, but that they were created from different purposes.

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 Many to most scientific representations aren’t intended to be the be all and end all. Scientists usually consider scientific models to be works in progress, to be studied, tested, reworked, changed and even tossed aside as necessary. Science is a continual work in progress.

For testing purposes, models are often intentionally made to be overly simple. One purpose of such simplification is that errors are more easily identified and corrected. With a more complicated, muddled model, it’s harder to identify what is working and what is not. Another reason for simplification is the scientist may be studying only one aspect of the subject. The other aspects are excluded. If a dentist is studying the teeth and gums, there may be no need for her computer model to be full-bodied, including detailed feet, fingernails, hair color and bellybutton. It may not even include eyes and nose, even though people with teeth and gums also have eyes and noses nearby. She may consider these details distracting and “beside the point.” A scientist will often be the first to say his representation isn’t a duplication of the subject, and was never intended to be an exact duplication of the subject.

As with communicating of scientific ideas to others, reducing a subject into a simplified if unrealistic model has practical purposes. Scientific progress would be stunted without simple, artificial models.

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Knowing that all representations contain fiction, a question to ask about a particular representation is whether the fiction is a device required for communication of ideas, testing or other practical use, or is it wrongly portrayed as part of the subject’s innate meaning. If you are well aware a fiction is fiction, there is no big issue. If you confuse fiction for fact, that is a problem.

While fiction, the size of the earlier representation of an atom is needed for humans to see the representation. If the representation was life size, it would useless to instructors and students. Similarly, artificial color coding for a diagram or map can make for easier and quicker understanding. It’s easier to find countries on a map if each is distinctly colored. These are examples of where the inclusion of artifice is fair and understandable.

A related question is how seriously is the fiction taken, both by the creator and the audience. Students and even seasoned scientists can become too comfortable, too enamored with clichés of color, shape and words. Through repetition, superficial conceits can become false idols.

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