Grossly misleading technical articles

Posted on April 30th, 2009 in AutoSpeed,Opinion by Julian Edgar

Long ago, even before I was a Geography teacher, I studied how to teach it. The head of the Geography department at college was a very smart person, and a brilliant teacher.

One day we were talking about teaching analogies and models, and the difficulty in simplification of knowledge without introducing straight-out erroneous ideas.

His example of the latter was: Clouds bumping into each other make thunder.

Much better, he pointed out, to say even to the youngest child: Thunder happens because of lightning.

In fact, clouds are a good example of these ideas. My little boy, who is 4 years old, asks what clouds are made of.

Tiny, tiny water droplets, I say.

So, how does rain happen, he asks?

I say: The tiny droplets run into each other and join together. When they are big enough, they fall to the ground.

While I am saying this, sometimes I think of a much more sophisticated model: water vapour, latent heat of evaporation and condensation, relative humidity, dew-point, hygroscopic nuclei – and other concepts.

A meteorologist would probably think of vapour pressure, a chemist might think at a molecular level, a physicist might consider terminal velocities, a climatologist might consider climate change, a minister of religion might think of God, an agnostic might think of the magnificence of nature.

In the description of clouds and rainfall that I say to my son, I am conscious of the gross simplifications I am making.

But that’s OK: every single thing I know about the world is a gross simplification of reality.

The intellectual models I use to make sense of what occurs around me are just reducible approximations of what really happens.

When I write technical articles in AutoSpeed, I am conscious that all the time I am presenting fundamentally simplistic models. I hope that they’re not of the ‘clouds bumping into each other make thunder’ type: but they may be.

Recently, I wrote an article on suspension roll centres, virtual pivot points and other ways of analysing suspension designs. In doing so, I consulted five different suspension design textbooks, and also considered very carefully the experience I have in developing human-powered vehicle suspensions, and modifying car suspensions.

As always, I was quite conscious during the writing of the article that the model I was presenting of reality was likely to be flawed: as I have already implied, every model we have of reality is, to a greater or lesser degree, flawed. However, I hoped that the information would benefit people’s understandings, especially in practical outcomes.

The day after finishing the article, I looked through a complex SAE paper on suspension roll centres. This paper immediately debunked several suspension ‘myths’, most of which I had implicitly or explicitly promulgated in the article I had written.

However, the paper was working at a level analogous to the ‘vapour pressure and hygroscopic nuclei’ theory of why rain falls: if I based my article on the SAE paper in question, perhaps less than half of one percent of AutoSpeed readers would understand anything I wrote. (If in fact I could understand it myself!)

So I could easily decide not to write anything at all: if it’s not ‘right’ and ‘correct’, surely it shouldn’t be written?

But that would be like saying to my son: I cannot tell you why rain falls; it’s too hard to understand.

I cannot tell you what a roll centre is; it’s too hard to understand.

Or I cannot tell you what a voltage is; it’s too hard to understand.

I cannot tell you what engine detonation is; it’s too hard to understand.

I cannot tell you how a tyre behaves when cornering, it’s too hard to understand.

And so on.

And these things – and all things – really are too hard to understand… if you want as ‘correct’ an understanding as it is currently possible to have.

Are my articles full of errors? So by definition, very likely.

Anyone who suggests that the technical articles they present for general readers are perfectly correct – or do not mislead in the slightest – just do not understand the nature of knowledge – and how all our descriptions of what goes on around us are just relatively simplistic models.

Me? I try to use the simplest model that’s consistent with not being grossly misleading…

11 Responses to 'Grossly misleading technical articles'

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  1. Ben Garside said,

    on April 30th, 2009 at 1:28 am

    At University one of the lecturers used to explain that, in the first year, they would tell us some of the truth, and then more in the second and yet more in the final year so that, at the end of the course we ended up with something approximating to a correct understanding of our own specialist subjects. In most areas of our life, our understanding of how things work is pretty sketchy to say the least, but it doesn’t stop people confidently stating their opinions as though they are facts, and misleading the less knowledgeable.

  2. Ford Man said,

    on April 30th, 2009 at 1:50 pm

    What was the title / number of the SAE paper on roll centres?

  3. Julian Edgar said,

    on April 30th, 2009 at 1:53 pm

    1999-01-0046 SAE Technical Paper Series

  4. Ford Man said,

    on April 30th, 2009 at 2:03 pm


    I should have mentioned, great throught provoking article!

  5. Rob said,

    on May 20th, 2009 at 8:54 am

    Yes all research is based a point of view from the best available evidence at the time …. even Einstein admitted a mistake …. and the whole scientific community based their assumptions on his theory and they didn’t want to accept he had made a mistake when he pointed it out.

    One example of his …,0,2289223.story

    That’s all part of the human experience …. we make assumptions, mistakes and fail ….but we move on and learn even more.

    Grossly misleading technical articles … might in your case be a bit harsh.

    Appreciate your honesty …. shows your integrity, which is sadly missing in the press these days with the need for sensationalism – geeze I hate that word sensationalism.

    Cheers, Rob

    Wellington, New Zealand

  6. David said,

    on May 24th, 2009 at 8:02 am

    well my physics lecturer used to put it this way, a ‘model’ of a system – he was talking about the molecular model and particle theory of matter, but it applies for all models – is like a pair of clothes. you put the clothes on and they outline your body to give a good approximation of what you look like. if you decided to wear a lycra swimsuit, it would be a very close approximation of your body, but it can never be exact- never bang on the money.

    none of us here claim to be God, weve just gotta settle for approximations – which for most of the time, is good enough.

  7. Lee said,

    on May 27th, 2009 at 1:14 pm

    I like in the Terry Pratchett ‘Science of Discworld’ books, they explain how we start off with ‘Lies to Children’, such as the droplets coming together, and end up with ‘Lies to People’ in the much more complex (but still not right!) models. And each is for the good of the people they’re told to!

  8. Florin said,

    on June 10th, 2009 at 8:07 pm

    An old teacher of mine (and a great engineer) once told us in class: “Engineering is not a science, it is an art: the art of precise approximations!”, meaning that every good engineer should have a sense of knowing when his model offers enough precision to get the job well done. Besides, it’s not wrong to be wrong, but to never admit you could be wrong!

  9. Ulu Aiono said,

    on June 24th, 2009 at 11:18 pm

    Great article thank you. Lots of wisdom about knowledge. One of the computer hardware & software support consultants in our company is an inarticulate genius. He can “heath robinson” anything into existence – starting with a vague idea. When he tries to explain the physics and maths of his devices he struggles with the “explanation” problem you described.

  10. Heath McCrossin said,

    on July 21st, 2009 at 8:50 pm

    It shows a pretty good understanding of a subject to be able to relate it in a simple way. In my opinion being able to put a complex idea into simple terms is the height of comprehension. Some people have natural talent and are able to achieve great things and some can show others how to do things well and of course some can do it all. I’ve seen many people try to explain complex things to people who don’t know much about a subject and can’t get through to them because their understanding is limited but their memory is good. Five minutes later a skillful and knowledgeable operator explains it and it’s apples! Thanks Julian, you’re the latter.

  11. gurunik said,

    on March 12th, 2010 at 1:15 pm

    You writings inspire me to find out stuff Julian. Thankyou.