The Outward-Looking Modeler: Adding Empirical Science to Risk
The test of all knowledge is experiment. Experiment is the sole judge of scientific truth.
Too often, a model of reality takes on a reality of its own. The users of the model are likely eventually to adopt it as “the truth.” The philosophers Plato (an idealist) and Benedict de Spinoza (a rationalist) were similar in that respect. That is, they believed that all knowledge had to come from their “models” (reason) alone—that everything we know could have been deduced without observation. In a way, they believed, the need to resort to observation merely shows the weaknesses and flaws in our ability to reason.
David Hume in contrast, was an empiricist. The empiricists doubt even the most rigorous, rational models and prefer to get their hands dirty with observation and real-world facts. They insist that reason alone would be insufficient for the basis of our knowledge even if our ability to reason were perfect. In fact, the empiricist says, much of what we call reason could not have been known without observation first.
But the best combination appears to be skill in theory and in observation. The Nobel Prize-winning physicists Enrico Fermi and Richard Feynman were competent theorists as well as consummate observers. They had a knack for checking just about any claim with observations much simpler than one might expect were necessary. Fermi used a ...

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