Archive for September, 2013


On Models and Block Diagrams

September 8, 2013

As you know, I’m really intrigued by creativity these days as are you.  I’ve recently been reading an excellent book about creativity by R. Keith Sawyer entitled, Explaining Creativity: The Science of Human Innovation, and related to the rural and urban that you discuss, he says the following:

Gardner’s research on the “exemplary creator” (1993) found that these exceptional individuals often grew up far from the cultural center, but before they made their most significant contributions, they moved to the center to master the domain and join the field’s networks.

Perhaps there is a cognitive development argument to be made about not being overly stimulated when one is young, but then having to learn what all has been done when one is ready to make contributions.  Anyway, one of the other interesting discussions in the book is about problem-finding as opposed to problem-solving.  As he says:

Some domains are fairly advanced and most of the important problems are well known to everyone.  Knowledge in the domain is well organized and well structured.  If you prefer a problem-finding style of creativity, then you’re likely to be frustrated in such a domain, because it needs problem solvers.  Problem-finding people are better off in domains where the most important issues are unresolved, where conventions and rules are not rigidly specified, where no one even knows where to start.  These tend to be relatively new areas of activity… If you prefer a problem-finding style of creativity, you’ll need to keep a broad watch on the society, looking for the next new thing.

In contrast, if you prefer a problem-solving style, then you’ll probably be happier in a mature domain that’s been around a while…. The questions are well known and the criteria for judging work are objective; everyone will know it when you come up with something new.  Many people prefer the certainty of such domains; in the more ambiguous problem-finding domains, the criteria for creativity are ill defined, and there may be subjective differences of opinion in what counts as good work.

As I like to argue about this kind of thing within an engineering systems theory, the question to me essentially reduces to whether there is a block diagram already or does one have to mathematize to get the block diagram. 


In his Shannon Lecture, David Slepian (at some point I need to learn more about the ghost army) took up how models relate to the real world, saying that it is a miracle that there is any correspondence between the two at all.  

If one thinks about biology rather than engineering systems theory, there is a strong tradition over the past six or seven decades of using model organisms like C. elegans or the mouse.  The idea is to learn as much as one can about a particular organism with the hope that it may provide insight into biological systems more generally.  I am no philosopher, but this model organism oriented method has something to do with nomothetic and idiographic approaches to knowledge.  What interests me is whether this method limits problem-finding and more importantly whether it limits what can be discovered.  There was a really nice sequence of articles a few years ago asking whether the focus on model organisms was impeding research into human disease, starting with why such models emerged in the first place.  I think all biologists should read it.  The author claims that “the mouse monopoly is teetering in the face of cheaper, faster genetic technologies” but I guess this is still to be seen.  I myself have studied C. elegans, but is it time to look at the Antarctic nematode or the naked mole rat?

Even if diversifying the set of organisms studied in biology didn’t advance understanding of human disease, I think it would definitely allow biology researchers to engage in more ‘problem-finding’ kinds of creativity, which I hope can only be a good thing.