On falcons and our blind faith in models

اللي ما يعرف الصقر يشوي

He who does not know the falcon grills it.

– Emirati Proverb

Having a falcon as a Bedouin just makes sense. Anyone who owns one in the desert is able to sustain a living off the landscape because of the food the bird of prey provides. The saying suggests that those who don’t know the value of an asset might mistake it for something else, or see it as worthless. Or worse, miss an opportunity by cooking and eating it.

Let me paint a picture of their importance: falcons represent a large part of the UAE’s identity. It is a symbol of regal power that transcended the country’s recent rush to modernisation. Falconry has its humble beginnings in Bedouin heritage, where they were considered prized possessions for their ability to be trained to hunt and provide food for their owners.

You do not respect the proverbial falcon unless you understand and take into consideration its uses and limitations. Those who don’t know their importance misuse them.

It’s something that has been weighing on my mind lately, mainly because I worry that in a field of developing models to make sense of the world around us, we mistake their true value and abuse them. Much like that poor grilled bird.

Wait, what do birds and marketing strategy have in common?

We naively trust models. See them as interchangeable, interoperable. If it has wings, it must be a bird. If it’s a bird, it must be a chicken. If it’s a chicken, we must eat it. If we eat it, it must be nutritious. And so on. If we do not understand a model or what it’s a reduction of, we fail to respect its limitations. 

Think about it. In making business decisions we ascribe so much value to funnels, Venn diagrams, and maps that if someone were to present an inverted pyramid to us, we’d have a hard time believing that it’s something other than a model of the sales cycle. In our effort to simplify reality with useful models,  we have begun to confuse these models with reality. When we see a powerful model work well, we tend to over-apply it, using it in unrelated situations. We have trouble understanding its usefulness, which causes errors. Not everything with wings is a chicken. It could be a falcon. But if we’ve never seen a falcon before, how would we know its uses?

We’re just wandering around drawing shapes and pretending they mean something

This all reminds me of the phrase the map is not the territory. The expression first appeared in print in “A Non-Aristotelian System and its Necessity for Rigour in Mathematics and Physics” by Alfred Korzybski. 

“A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a similar structure to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness.”

— Alfred Korzybski, Science and Sanity

The map of reality is not reality itself. Even the best maps are imperfect — if you ask me about my opinion about the Mercator projection, I will get emotional. That’s because they are gross abstractions of what they are meant to represent, and with any abstraction, there’s room for oversimplification. Yet we hold these abstractions as truth. If it has wings, it must be a chicken. 

“The map appears to us more real than the land.”

— D.H. Lawrence

If a map, which describes the territory, were to represent the territory with complete accuracy, it would no longer be a reduction and thus would no longer be useful to us. The model is not reality. The funnel is not the sales cycle. The bird is not the chicken. The inability to see one for the other has practical consequences.

How many times have we misused models because it’s the only way we know how to make sense of the world around us? Sometimes people call us experts because we’ve been able to replicate patterns in our work. We are able to do this because we have the tools and models to help us get by.

But what if one day, we need a falcon and not the chicken? How would we ever know the difference?

And that scares me.