How Planet Models are a Simplified Representation of Some Aspects of the World - Ways Models Help or Hinder the Search For Knowledge

How Models are a Simplified Representation of Some Aspects of the World - Ways Models Help or Hinder the Search For Knowledge

In middle school, I was taught that electrons orbit the nucleus like plants orbiting the sun. I found it quite comprehensible, as I was familiar with the structure of the solar system, and I appreciated the elegance of this analogy. However, in high school, I learned that the planetary model was abandoned long ago, and I was introduced to a more sophisticated one: the quantum model. I wondered why my middle school teacher could have taught me the wrong thing. However, I later realized that if I hadn’t got used to the planetary model, I would never have understand the newer more complex one.
It is true that a model is able to simulate a certain entity and present it to humans by making the abstract concept more concrete. But a model is primarily a human construction: a static, lifeless object that tells nothing more than was known at the moment of its creation. On the other hand, humans have thoughts, and they can be flexible when manipulating the tools given to them; in this case, a model is the tool for understanding some aspect of the world. Thus, when it comes to analyzing how models help or hinder the search for knowledge, which is a human action, the knowledge base, perception, belief, objectivity or conviction of the person using the model should be taken into consideration. Examples can be seen in several fields of knowledge where it is common to propose a model for explaining a phenomenon: the natural sciences, economics, and psychology. this essay, I will thus examine how models in these areas of knowledge either help or hinder the search of knowledge, and will argue how, ultimately, the models’ usefulness depends more on the people using them than the models themselves.

Many models are initiated by analogies. Let’s examine the model of quarks in the field of particle physics. Experimentation in this branch of physics strongly suggested that a nucleon consists of three quarks, and these quarks have to possess a charge-like property that cancels out when three of them are put together. Scientists faced difficulties defining this property, since they were not familiar with charges that exist in triplets rather than pairs. Eventually, a scientist made an analogy of this particle to colors: as red, greed and blue light interfere and form colorless white light; three quarks of different “color-charges” combine and cancel out the net charge. The quarks are not visually colored: the color is just an analogy to the property which cancels out within triplets. Nevertheless, afterwards, the quark model is usually drawn as three spheres with red, green and blue colors, tightly bonded to each other. Using this model, students can easily understand the nature of the “color” of the particles. The discovery of this property also led to the establishment of a new theory, the Quantumchromo Dynamics, which deals especially with the function of colors of particles (Pollock, Lecture 14). From this case, we see that a model can be extremely powerful in explaining aspects of nature that cannot be otherwise directly observed or easily grasped; moreover, it tackles the intuitive understanding of the human mind, and can lead to exciting new discoveries.

Models also contribute in the social sciences. To explain how, I would like to introduce the two models of macroeconomics: the Classical model and the Keynesian model. These two models are constructed to explain the same situation: how market forces interact with aggregate supply and demand on labor market in the long run. However, the basic assumptions behind the ideas are different. The Classical approach is based on the hypothesis that the free market is a perfect economy, and it would clear spontaneously without government intervention; while the Keynesian theory states that markets are essentially unstable and do not necessarily clear, and that laborers are unwilling to accept lowering of wages, meaning the equilibrium price mathematically determined by the market forces is artificially discerned by the laborers (McGee 351). Apparently, these two assumptions of the market are contradictory; the graphs of the two models are shown in Figure 2 below, just to provide a visual concept of how different they are. It can be seen from the Keynesian model that the aggregate supply curve, unlike the one in the classical model, is not linear, indicating that there is a limit to which the market force is able to determine the situation.

However, even in economics course for beginners, both models are taught, and students are asked to compare and evaluate the outcomes while applying different theories. We cannot, in fact, tell which model is correct, for they both yield logical results to a certain extent. In this case, neither of the models represents the truth regarding macroeconomics, for the truth is unique: it could be either this way or that way, or perhaps neither; but it cannot be both, because the two theories have disagreements. Yet we are hindered so far from truth by the models that there is nothing we can do about macroeconomic problems. We are human, and we are well informed of the existence of the principles of the world which are yet undiscovered, and that no situation is perfect. Thus, we are able to draw conclusions using both models and predict the result with each theory, despite the fact that they are not complementary. This methodology is highly applicable when dealing with social sciences, since situations involving humans can never as predictable as those in the natural sciences.

When models are applied and examined critically, we usually progress in the search of knowledge. However, when the user of the model starts losing objectivity, inadequate conclusions are drawn. One example is the psychoanalytic model of human psyche. The basic idea is that the human mind is divided into conscious and unconscious. Based on this, Sigmund Freud further proposed a more specific model while trying to explain the cause of Hysteria: in this case being understood as the result of the repressed emotions occurred during sexual abuses in the childhood of the patient. (Mollon, 9). It is a quite mechanical model. When Freud started to apply, or as it was later proven to be, impose this model on his patients, at first, all his patients were victims of childhood sexual abuse. Afterwards, when researchers tried to investigate this situation, it turned out that the memory regarding sexual abuse of some of Freud’s patients was false (Mollon 11). Later experiments showed that the human easily composes false memories after receiving hints. But Freud did not realize that, for he was too confident about his theory, about the model he had established. Its consequences are, first of all, a wrong belief held by scholars for a considerably long period, and secondly, fabricated memories that caused unnecessary troubles within the patients’ families.
Things can get even worse, nevertheless. Dogmatism towards a certain model is even able to stop progress in the search of knowledge. In the 1950s, a Russian chemist, Beslousov, discovered a chemical system which oscillated between two equilibrium states, and the exact time elapsed between these shift was unpredictable. He wrote a paper about this experiment, but it was not published because mainstream scientists did not like it, not because than there were mistakes in the math or reasoning. The commonly held model of the world at that period was the Clock-work Universe, which described the universe as a perfect machine where everything can be predicted accurately (BBC 4). Many scientists, including Einstein, were attached to that model: people usually feel more secure living in a world where everything is predictable. And thus confirmation bias arises. Nevertheless, this model has now been abandoned by most scientists, for new discoveries indicate that there is a degree of randomness in the universe. In fact, this theory, Chaos Theory, is the result of Belousov’s experiment and other similar discoveries; but the birth of this new idea was significantly delayed by the dogmatism of the people at the past.

There is a Chinese idiom which says: “Books are dead and people are alive”, meaning that human mind should not be restricted by what is written down in the books. I would like to apply this logic to models as well. The model is something established in the past, by people, to simulate a real phenomena, which can be successful, but not necessarily true, like the clock-work universe or the planetary model of atoms. It can be accepted as a decent model as long as it can help people to understand the perceivable world, especially children, whose intelligence has not developed well enough to understand complex theories. But it is time for it to be replaced for the experts, as unexplainable occurrences appear. For those who play key roles in the field of research, it is pivotal not to let their human weaknesses: perception, conviction or belief trammel their way to truth.

Works Cited

BBC 4. The Secret of Life of Chaos. 2008
Econ 201.
Date of Access: Feb.4 2011
Economics Help: “Keynesian Stimulus.” .
Date of Publication: May.4 2009; Date of Access: Feb.4 2011
McGee, Matt. Economics-In terms of The Good, The Bad and The Economist. Victoria: IBID Press, 2004.
Mollon, Phil. Freud and False Memory Syndrome. Beijing: Beijing University, 2005.
Pollock, Steven. Particle Physics for Non-Physicists, Lecture 14 . Teaching Company, 2002.