Wrong, but Useful

All models are wrong, but some are useful

This is something multiple professors taught me back in engineering school. It was something I had in mind when I decided to that it was time for me and mathematics to part ways and to focus on engineering. But I’ve also been thinking a lot about it — and it’s corollaries — lately as I try to improve my health and some other personal goals.

At the risk of overthinking it, I wanted to go ahead and walk through the various ways this has played out in my life lately.

Models Are Tools

This is perhaps the most obvious, so obvious that it barely deserves mentioning. After all, the definition of a model is almost literally a tool for thought”. But all ideas, processes, systems, etc are just tools. Which means we shouldn’t get so emotionally invested in them, or in their correctness. When I break a drill bit, I go buy a new one. When the spade I have isn’t the right one for the job I need to do, I go get the right shovel, or pickaxe, or whatever.

As I begin to treat them more like tools, I’m also remembering other valuable strategies for managing tools.

I want enough to get the job done, but not too many. How many is too many” and enough”? Well it depends on what jobs is and how often I do it. I currently have two saws, which is the right amount for the number and type of cuts I have to make. I only have one axe, or one wire cutter, or one cordless drill. But at the same time, I have dozens of drill bits and sizes of wrenches. And none of millions of other tools.

So it should be with mental models. I have a handful of models on personality types, say, but essentially none for the interactions of subatomic particles.

All Models Have Something to Give

This one I think is hard for certain groups of people who to swallow. Namely, those who think their preferred model is most right”. But yes, all models, even the ones you think to be absolutely bonkers, probably have something to give.

Now, caveat. I’m sure some people can and have specifically thought of models that seem to defy this rule. Perhaps that shows that my model of models is wrong. But more to the point, any model that people actually use is sure to have some useful elements, otherwise people would not use it.

It is ok, and perhaps desirable to seek out the useful bits and add them to your toolbox.

Just because Frank cuts his steak with a saw and his lumber with a steak knife doesn’t mean I have to. But at the same time, it would be foolish of me to dismiss both tools as useless based on his example.


If you really, truly accept the title phrase into your heart, you have no choice but to give up some of your ego as well.

Because guess what? Your favorite model, the one that you use all the time and think other people are crazy for ignoring? It’s wrong.

It’s just as wrong as the most wackado banana-pants theories that other people live with.

Did that cause an emotional reaction? It’s ok if it did. I mean — I did just call you crazy.

But push back against that emotion. Because we don’t need to be emotionally invested in our tools. They are just tools. Sometimes they serve a purpose for us, and sometimes they don’t.

At the same time, it is ok — completely reasonable, in fact — to have tools and models that you use more often than others. Because that’s the way life is; you do certain things more often than others. We just need to be able to recognize the limitations of what we do have.

It is also good to have tools and models that you never use because you simply never have a need for them. As long as you have your mind open to them when the time comes.

When it’s time for dinner, we should set down the saw and pick up the steak knife.

September 10, 2023