Religion and Science: A Beautiful Friendship? HTML version
It's beside the point that these early mode ls are now dismissed as "creation myths. " What's important
about them is not their va lidity but the ir existence. When humans began trying to explain the world, they
embarked on a path that in time would give them a power advantage not only over other animals, but also
over other human groups that handicapped themselves by clinging to inferior explanations.
Explanations, theories, maps, laws—models—are the path to power. Most of them are no good, but the
few good ones rule. When models compete, better ones confer advantages on those who adopt them, and,
over time, these first adopters gain an advantage over people saddled with mode ls that harness and
organize less power.
The sciences… make models. By a model is meant a … construct which, with the
addition of certain verbal interpretations, describes observed phenomena. The
justification of such a construct is solely and precise ly that it is expected to work.
– John von Neumann, creator of game theory and computer logic
Scientists use the terms "mode l," "theory," "explanation," and "law" almost interchangeably. The popular
idea that a theory is more tentative than a model, or even a law, is quite wrong. These terms do not
indicate relative degrees of certainty, but rather have their origins in history. For example, Newton's
classical dynamics are referred to as "laws of motion" whereas the relativistic dynamics that Einstein
discovered go by the name of the "theory of relativity. " One might think the word law would indicate
greater certainty, but in this case it's just the opposite. As of this writing, Einstein's "theory" has no known
exceptions, and Newton's "laws" break down in the subatomic realm and for ordinary objects moving at
Similarly, Darwin's "theory of evolution" is not so-named to suggest flaws in it. The theory of evolution
has been thoroughly tested and to date has not been found wanting. Another very accurate,
comprehensive scientific theory describes the elementary particles and their interactions. It goes by the
unassuming name of "the standard model."
Building better mode ls is humankind's defining activity. For better or worse, it's made us who we are. The
aforesaid "standard model" describes three of Nature's four forces, and, by enabling us to predict their
effects, allows us to tap sources of energy otherwise unavailable. The flip side of taming Nature's power
is that we may use it in ways that damage the planet and harm each other.
We learn modeling early, starting with Legos, dolls, and mode l trains. The fables we grow up with ca n be
understood as models that show us how to behave. People fancy themselves as characters in video games,
sometimes deploying an avatar, and can try out different behaviors vicariously without risking their own
Scientists Francis Crick and James Watson modeled the double-stranded helical structure of the DNA
molecule with Tinker Toys. There is a model of the San Francisco Bay—complete with miniature piers
poking into the water, a scaled-down Golden Gate Bridge, and "tida l currents" prope lled by pumps—that
fills a warehouse in Sausalito, California. By studying it, scientists can anticipate the effects of proposed
real-world alterations of the Bay.
Weather bureaus, using computers and mathematical mode ls, provide weather forecasts. As everyone
knows, the predictions are not always right, but they're getting more accurate as the models are improved.
Experimenting with model planes in wind tunne ls enabled the Wright brothers to build the aircraft they
flew at Kitty Hawk. Even more significant than the plane they built was their pioneering use of modeling
in engineering. Mode ls enabled them to anticipate problems through tria l and error without paying the