Beware of shorthand

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Maxims and arrows

A hearty collection of the JC’s pithiest adages.

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The world is an intractable, complicated place. Part of the human condition is to simplify, narratise, generalise: to overlay an organising metaphor that makes sense of the chaos.

So we are drawn to signs that stand for more complicated underlying realities. The laws of physics are such a simplification. They don’t lie[1], so much as operate as a simple heuristic. We rely on Newton’s work to save us the bother of going through that inductive discovery every day.

Hence our heuristics become our metaphors, and our metaphors coalesce to form an invisible superstructure, on which we hang the imaginative drapes of our own personal reality.

We do this in all walks of life. We rate, we grade, we categorise, we risk-manage by reference to a simplified narrative structure. But we must understand the complicated workings, and assumptions, and tolerances, of our models.

It’s okay to generalise. We can’t help it. But be aware of you are doing it. Heuristics may fail.

See also

  1. Though try telling that to Nancy Cartwright, author of How the Laws of Physics Lie.