August 10, 2022

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How Description Leads to Understanding

Describing one thing with accuracy forces you to be taught extra about it. In this fashion, description could be a device for studying.

Accurate description requires the next:

  1. Observation
  2. Curiosity about what you’re witnessing
  3. Suspending assumptions about trigger and impact

It may be troublesome to stay with describing one thing fully and precisely. It’s exhausting to beat the tendency to attract conclusions based mostly on partial data or to depart assumptions unexplored.


Some programs, just like the ecosystem that’s the ocean, are complicated. They have many transferring elements which have a number of dependencies and work together in sophisticated methods. Trying to determine them out is daunting, and it will possibly appear extra sane to not trouble making an attempt—besides that complicated programs are in all places. We dwell our lives as a part of lots of them, and addressing any world challenges entails understanding their many dimensions.

One solution to start understanding complicated programs is by describing them intimately: mapping out their elements, their a number of interactions, and the way they modify via time. Complex programs are sometimes sophisticated—that’s, they’ve many transferring elements that may be exhausting to determine and outline. But the overriding characteristic of complicated programs is that they can’t be managed from the highest down. Complex programs show emergent properties and unpredictable variations that we can’t determine prematurely. But removed from being inaccessible, we are able to be taught lots about such programs by describing what we observe.

For instance, Jane Jacobs’s complete description of the interactions alongside metropolis sidewalks in The Death and Life of Great American Cities led to insight about how cities actually work. Her work additionally emphasised the multidimensionality of metropolis programs by demonstrating through description that trying to handle a metropolis from the highest down would stifle its adaptive capabilities and negatively affect town itself.

Another e-book that makes use of description to light up sophisticated and complex relationships is The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson. In it she chronicles occasions within the oceans, from the cycles of plankton development to the motion of waves, in accessible, evocative descriptions. It’s no bother to conjure up vivid photographs based mostly on her phrases. But because the e-book progresses, her descriptions of the elements coalesce into an appreciation for the way multidimensional the ocean system is.

Carson’s descriptions come via a number of lenses. She describes the ocean via the habits of animals and volcanoes. She explores the ocean by describing its vertical integration from the floor to the depths and the underside. She appears to be like on the oceans via the lenses of their currents and relationships to wind. In whole the e-book describes the identical entity, the seas that cowl the vast majority of the earth’s floor, via 13 completely different descriptive lenses. Although the elements are damaged down into their fundamentals, the excellent view that Carson employs permits the reader to simply grasp how sophisticated the ocean system is.

None of the lenses she makes use of impart complete information. Trying to understand how interconnected the elements of the system are by simply her description of tides or minerals is inconceivable. It’s solely when the lenses are mixed {that a} full image of the ecosystem emerges.

The e-book demonstrates the worth in description, even should you can’t conclude causation within the specifics you’re describing.

One noticeable omission from the e-book is the position of plate tectonics within the motion of the ocean ground and related phenomena like volcanoes. Plate tectonic principle is a scientific child and was not but extensively accepted when Carson up to date her authentic textual content in 1961. But not realizing plate tectonic principle doesn’t undermine her descriptions of life on the backside of the oceans, or the affect of volcanoes, or the altering form of the undersea cabinets that connect to the continents. Although the reader is invited to ponder the why behind what she is describing, we’re additionally inspired to be within the second, observing the ocean via Carson’s phrases.


The e-book shouldn’t be an argument for a selected approach of interacting with the ocean. It doesn’t must make one. Carson’s descriptions provide their very own proof of how making an attempt to alter or handle the ocean system can be extraordinarily troublesome as a result of they reveal the multitude of connections between numerous sea phenomena.

Describing the entire from so many alternative angles illuminates the complicated. By chronicling microinteractions, reminiscent of these between areas of cold and warm water or excessive and low stress, we are able to see how adjustments in a single side produce cascading change. We additionally get a way of the adaptability of the residing organisms that dwell within the oceans, like with the ability to dwell in depths that don’t have any mild (and subsequently no crops that depend on photosynthesis) and adjusting biochemistry to benefit from seasonal differences in temperature that have an effect on water weight and salt contents.

The reader walks away from the e-book appreciating the problem in describing intimately one thing as sophisticated because the ocean ecosystem. The e-book is stuffed with observations and quick on judgments, an strategy that encourages us to develop our own curiosity in regards to the sea round us.

The Sea Around Us is the Farnam Street e-book membership’s summer season choice. Members get extra useful resource supplies to assist get essentially the most out of this fascinating e-book. Learn more or join in.

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