The real value of simulation

April 19th, 2010

After many pages of pointing out the limits, and even dangers, of simulation in scientific research, Sherry Turkle ends her book, Simulation and Its Discontents, with a suggestion for the true value of simulation.  She draws from many disciplines, but presents the same theme:  the errors that inevitably emerge from simulations are the very data we should value.  Scientists from fields as diverse as protein crystallography, nuclear weapons design, and astrophysics all chime in with this assertion.  Simulation, they say, is beguiling because it can produce beautiful images of worlds that can never be.  However, when those images are evaluated against the real, we can finally begin to learn something about both.

The weapons designer, Dr. Adam Luft, says, “’Simulations are never right.  They’re all wrong.  Forget it.  That’s it.  They’re wrong.  Guaranteed.  There is more entropy in the real world then [sic] there is in your computer.  That’s just the way it is’” (p. 81).

Dean Whitman, a biologist, further asserts that “you need a simulation to produce error so that you can test it against reality, to figure out how it is wrong.  If you get the simulation right, you will never understand how it is right.  You need it to be wrong and you need to figure out how it is wrong” (p. 82).

The consensus seems to be that simulation does have a place in research and design.  However, the designers, scientists, and engineers should remain vigilant against their own laziness and love of the “glitzy” when using simulations.  The best simulation is the one that produces something a little ugly, a little incomplete, and a little off the mark.  That allows, or perhaps forces, the user to go back over the plans and calculations to produce something real that is, in the end, much closer to the ideal.


Turkle, S. (2009). Simulation and Its Discontents.  Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

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