Lessons from a geologist

From time to time, I come across a passage in a book or article that seems appropriate for O.R. scientists and the practice of O.R..  Recently, I have been reading a book about geology, "The Planet in a Pebble" by Jan Zalasiewicz which is a fascinating, readable, and - at times - humorous account of the geological history of our planet.  Thoroughly recommended!

On page 119, discussing the nature of graptolites (and you will have to read the book to find out what they are), and the presence of isotopes which help to date them, he writes:

Isotopes in geology can provide marvellous pictures of the past--but also mirages.  They need to be approached with care.  The trick, as ever, is to ask the right kind of question, tackle it by means of appropriate analysis, and to look at the answer one receives with due scepticism.  It's work in progress.

That highlighted sentence deserves to be inscribed at the start of many O.R. studies.  An O.R. training should prepare one for the three stages:
  • asking the right questions;
  • using appropriate analysis;
  • looking at the answer with care, even if scepticism is not always justified.

Thank you, Jan for that reminder!

A little later (page 183) he throws in another salutary reminder:

Ugly Facts [his capital letters] keep disturbing the symmetry of a neat explanation--but then the Ugly Facts, once understood and accommodated, can widen and deepen our understanding of how the Earth works, even in its smallest and most obscure corners.

Yes, we in Operational Research need to be reminded that there are often Ugly Facts which keep disturbing our neat O.R. models, but they can also make our models much better when we accommodate them.


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