Science: The Map Analogy

What is truth? Is science truth?

Perhaps a more attainable question: is gravity truth?

To answer this we have to ask: what is gravity? Most people think of gravity as the reason that things fall. That is not what gravity is. The fact that unsupported objects fall is a mere observation; people have known that for thousands of years (push your laptop off the table, you’re merely making an observation). The theory of gravity states that objects with mass experience a force of attraction that is proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to their distance. It turns out that this theory explains not only why your laptop hit the floor but also why the moon doesn’t crash into the Earth. Wait, why doesn’t the moon crash into the Earth?…

However, even this most comfortable of theories has changed over time. Initially described by Sir Isaac Newton, the theory was radically modified by another science heavy-weight: Albert Einstein. But if Einstein modified the theory, was Newton wrong? Indeed, many scientists are still trying to “fix” this bedrock theory; is Einstein wrong, too? What is truth?! To answer this, I’d like to consider a subject vastly more approachable: maps.

Is this map truth?

Most of us would agree that it most certainly is not. However, it was the most accurate that people could draw at the time and, more importantly, it was useful. If I wanted to find my way from Europe to The New World in 1690, it was as close to truth as I bothered to care!

What about this map?

Most of us would agree that this map is an accurate representation of the world, but… it’s kind of flat. We can learn a lot from this map, but it isn’t true. Even a globe, which even more accurately represents the true spherical nature of the planet doesn’t have that tree next to your apartment. Even that globe is a mere representation of the actual world.

While a globe is the best way to depict the entire planet, if I wanted to find my way across town, a globe would be absolutely useless. For this, I might use a city map, or even a metro map, which are often even more obviously “wrong” than the first map that I showed. However, all of these different scale maps are useful for different purposes.

Science is similar. We’ve got General Relativity to describe the long distance interactions of stars and planets and galaxies (like the globe, but it’s not quite right about everything). We’ve got Quantum Mechanics to describe the tiny interactions that go on in your cells and in all the atoms that make up the universe (like your metro map, but it hasn’t quite got everything either).

This is why science is always “wrong” but always captures the truth in a meaningful way. Was Newton right? No, he was close but Einstein showed him! Was Einstein right? No, but his maps have taken us places that we never thought possible in the last 100 years.

Look, we’ve all known that stuff falls for like, ever. But since 500 years ago, Newton’s map was the best way to find yourself to the closest moon, and hey we got there… eventually. It won’t be accurate enough to get us to the next star, but our current map makers are pretty damn smart…

P.S. An observation, like your laptop shattering on the floor: life changes over time; these are observations. The theory to describe the observation that life changes over time is evolution. Like the theory of gravity, the theory of evolution is evolving with new data every day. You can imagine that Darwin’s theory looked a lot like this:

Yeah, it was pretty rough. We’ve come quite a way since then, but we still don’t have the full globe view of evolution yet. However, calling it “wrong” is about as useful as telling someone in 1610 that the map above is wrong. It may not be right, but I’m still setting sail for the New World, baby!

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