How Description Leads to Understanding

Describing something with accuracy forces you to learn more about it. In this way, description can be a tool for learning.

Accurate description requires the following:

  1. Observation
  2. Curiosity about what you are witnessing
  3. Suspending assumptions about cause and effect

It can be difficult to stick with describing something completely and accurately. It’s hard to overcome the tendency to draw conclusions based on partial information or to leave assumptions unexplored.

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Some systems, like the ecosystem that is the ocean, are complex. They have many moving parts that have multiple dependencies and interact in complicated ways. Trying to figure them out is daunting, and it can seem more sane to not bother trying—except that complex systems are everywhere. We live our lives as part of many of them, and addressing any global challenges involves understanding their many dimensions.

One way to begin understanding complex systems is by describing them in detail: mapping out their parts, their multiple interactions, and how they change through time. Complex systems are often complicated—that is, they have many moving parts that can be hard to identify and define. But the overriding feature of complex systems is that they cannot be managed from the top down. Complex systems display emergent properties and unpredictable adaptations that we cannot identify in advance. But far from being inaccessible, we can learn a lot about such systems by describing what we observe.

For example, Jane Jacobs’s comprehensive description of the interactions along city sidewalks in The Death and Life of Great American Cities led to insight about how cities actually work. Her work also emphasized the multidimensionality of city systems by demonstrating via description that attempting to manage a city from the top down would stifle its adaptive capabilities and negatively impact the city itself.

Another book that uses description to illuminate complicated and intricate relationships is The Sea Around Us by Rachel Carson. In it she chronicles events in the oceans, from the cycles of plankton growth to the movement of waves, in accessible, evocative descriptions. It’s no trouble to conjure up vivid images based on her words. But as the book progresses, her descriptions of the parts coalesce into an appreciation for how multidimensional the sea system is.

Carson’s descriptions come through multiple lenses. She describes the sea through the behavior of animals and volcanoes. She explores the sea by describing its vertical integration from the surface to the depths and the bottom. She looks at the oceans through the lenses of their currents and relationships to wind. In total the book describes the same entity, the seas that cover the majority of the earth’s surface, through thirteen different descriptive lenses. Although the parts are broken down into their basics, the comprehensive view that Carson employs allows the reader to easily grasp how complicated the sea system is.

None of the lenses she uses impart complete information. Trying to appreciate how interconnected the parts of the system are by looking at just her description of tides or minerals is impossible. It’s only when the lenses are combined that a complete picture of the ecosystem emerges.

The book demonstrates the value in description, even if you cannot conclude causation in the specifics you’re describing.

One noticeable omission from the book is the role of plate tectonics in the movement of the ocean floor and associated phenomena like volcanoes. Plate tectonic theory is a scientific baby and was not yet widely accepted when Carson updated her original text in 1961. But not knowing plate tectonic theory doesn’t undermine her descriptions of life at the bottom of the oceans, or the impact of volcanoes, or the changing shape of the undersea shelves that attach to the continents. Although the reader is invited to contemplate the why behind what she is describing, we are also encouraged to be in the moment, observing the ocean through Carson’s words.

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The book is not an argument for a particular way of interacting with the sea. It doesn’t need to make one. Carson’s descriptions offer their own evidence of how trying to change or manage the sea system would be extremely difficult because they reveal the multitude of connections between various sea phenomena.

Describing the whole from so many different angles illuminates the complex. By chronicling microinteractions, such as those between areas of hot and cold water or high and low pressure, we can see how changes in one aspect produce cascading change. We also get a sense of the adaptability of the living organisms that live in the oceans, like being able to live in depths that have no light (and therefore no plants that rely on photosynthesis) and adjusting biochemistry to take advantage of seasonal variations in temperature that affect water weight and salt contents.

The reader walks away from the book appreciating the challenge in describing in detail something as complicated as the ocean ecosystem. The book is full of observations and short on judgments, an approach that encourages us to develop our own curiosity about the sea around us.

The Sea Around Us is the Farnam Street book club’s summer selection. Members get additional resource materials to help get the most out of this fascinating book. Learn more or join in.