The parable of the fish tank

by Richard on June 5, 2011

Or, The difference between climate and weather explained. By Michael Tobis. (Apologies for the lack of a link. Will add later)

Imagine a large tropical fish tank on a table, say at a mid-range Chinese restaurant. The fish swim hither, the fish swim yon. As you watch the fish over many visits (perhaps you especially like to sit by the fish tank as you roll up your mu shu pancakes) you come to know their habits. The striped one likes to hang out near the surface but occasionally goes for a dive, the reddish one hangs out by the coral, and so on. As you learn the habits of the fish, you develop a sort of set of expectations for where they will be as you look up from your meal. Occasionally they will be a bit out of place; you’ll think “that’s a little weird” but not lose any sleep over it.

As an expert on the fish, you sometimes strike up a conversation with your companions. “Look, I bet that one’s getting ready to dive to the bottom…” Congratulations, you are now an expert on fish prediction! This is like weather prediction, only with fish. Then someone asks you to predict where the clownfish will be in ten minutes. You chuckle and say you can only guess, based on its habits; it’s current position gives you no information about that. Good. Now you have said something about fish climate.

Now imagine that your obnoxious Young Republican nephew us joining you for dinner, and leaning on the tank so hard as to make you worry that he will knock it over. You tell him so, and ask him to please stop messing with the fish tank, which after all is not his property, and which the restaurateur will surely come after you for rather than your ne’er-do-well nephew. And besides, you really do rather like the fishtank.

Of course, your nephew persists, invoking his freedoms. You see the corner of the tank lift off the table and become alarmed. You say you are pretty sure he will break the fishtank if he keeps pushing it harder and harder. Rather than complying, he asks you again where the clownfish will be in ten minutes.

“I have no idea!” you reply, exasperated. “What the heck does that have to do with it? That tank will be smashed before you know it; the fish will be flopping on the floor, I’ll be out twelve hundred bucks, and I’ll be persona non grata at my favorite Szechuan joint, thanks to you!”

“Aha”, quoth he. “So you know nothing about tropical fish displays at all! You admit it! If you don’t even know where a single fish will be in ten minutes, how can you make predictions about when it will hit the floor?”

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