Thursday, September 10, 2009

Roughly right

More wisdom from one of the great thinkers of the 20th century on why rapid prototyping of problems is useful:
It is better to be roughly right than precisely wrong
John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946)
I believe this is true for ecological systems, but where it runs into problems is when we have to interact with engineers, for whom the idea of "roughly right" seems to be anathema. Macroeconomists don't interact with engineers, I guess.

Engineers can't predict the detailed dynamics of turbulent flow in a pipe any better than I can predict the dynamics of a small population - probably worse, in fact. They can predict the onset of turbulence very well, and the gross properties of the flow. I can do that too - average growth and the variance of the population, and even include the effects of observation error and estimation error in the parameters. What is puzzling me is why ecologists fail to use these powerful theoretical concepts in their interactions with engineers - we have the rigor. Let's use it.

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