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"The scientist trains to understand how to propose and then let go of naive initial assumptions."

Theoretical Physicists seem to forever resort to a mythical Spherical Cow when attempting to analyze some natural phenomenon. Let's say, for instance, that said physicist wanted to consider the aerodynamics of a cow. (This sort of problem rarely comes up for consideration in the careers of chartered accountants. This might be the best reason to avoid a career in chartered accountancy.) Rather than first include all the variations a cow's body shape might add to the initial calculation, the canny physicists will employ a bit of fiction and first assume a Perfectly Spherical Cow, an utter absurdity. Given this regular shape, general principles might be easily identified to produce a rough first draft of a solution. Later, our physicist can add complications like legs, horns, hooves, and head, to iteratively produce more real world assessments. First pass assessments frequently rely upon a mythical Spherical Cow.

Much science advances in a similar fashion, building upon some deliberate fiction when first attempting to understand some phenomena.
The resulting analysis seems incomplete if not entirely wrong, though it might well be best understood by its limitations. Nothing's been proven yet, though insights might have emerged. Later analysis discards the initial spherical assumption, but the character of the inquiry's perhaps more permanently affected. Who's to say that the spherical notion didn't completely mislead the inquiry, injecting absolute fantasy into whatever refinement might later emerge? The cow, after all, seems anything but spherical. Still, one must begin any inquiry with the tools at hand, and calculating the aerodynamics of a sphere has long been settled science. Some naive observers will inevitably imprint on this initial characterization, though, and forever hold that sphere as representing the very soul of the situation. No argument seems likely to shake loose such convictions.

The intersection between science and society holds many curious convictions. First impressions seem to matter more to most than do disposable initial assumptions, and many of us understand in ways that materially misrepresent underlying complexities. We perhaps too easily engage in All Ya Gotta Do advising, as if the so-called expert was missing obvious solutions instead of more deeply respecting actual complications. Politicians seem especially prone to this sort of myopia, for they must juggle ten thousand metaphors in lieu of actually understanding details. A first impression becomes a lasting conviction, particularly when further complications nudge a consideration into contradicting earlier espoused positions. Our damned pandemic brightly illuminates this dilemma, as those with deeply vested interests embrace their spherical cattle.

Our economic history, too, seems largely defined by cascading conjectures, firm beliefs balanced upon herds of curiously spherical cows. Laissez Faire attitudes, the spherical belief in an invisible hand, seem perfectly in accord with my conjecture. What was also occurring around the time our vaunted capitalism emerged? John Maynard Keynes noted that Europe was actively plundering the rest of the world, injecting formerly unimaginable wealth into a system unaccustomed to such plenty. A new theory was needed, a fresh spherical cow upon which to calculate causes and effects, and that cow, that time, became the invisible hand. Those prone to take metaphor too literally, imprinted upon this magical thinking, interpreting what was first proposed as "like" an invisible hand to put a glove on the presumption and commence to await its divine intervention. Keynes noted that Shakespeare appeared at precisely the moment when we could finally afford to buy what he was selling. So did the so-called Renaissance, which was actually the product of plundering, not divine blessing. The spherical stories served to cloak other possibilities promoting human agency over firmly held belief, damning many to smother beneath a spherical cow curiously unwilling to reliably give milk on command, especially to peasants familiar with milking actual cows.

So many imprinted upon Covid-19 as a minor cold that I doubt we'll ever get that spherical cow back into her pasture. Further complications arise daily to undermine earlier conclusions such that we might well admit that we still know little, but are still learning, or at least some of us are. Many closed down their inquiry back during the spherical cow phase of the investigation, and steadfastly refuse contradictory evidence. I could say it has always been like this and not be far wrong. The finest evidence that we remain free might be our headstrong insistences that what we firmly believe simply must be true. Our pandemic was, indeed, once a seemingly unthreatening spherical cow. Now, it's become a much more grave situation. The scientist trains to understand how to propose and then let go of naive initial assumptions. I would that the rest of us understood how to let go even half as easily.

©2020 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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