Fiction and Scientific Representation

Scientific discourse is rife with passages that appear to be ordinary descriptions of systems of interest in a particular discipline. Equally, the pages of textbooks and journals are filled with discussions of the properties and the behavior of those systems. Students of mechanics investigate at length the dynamical properties of a system consisting of two or three spinning spheres with homogenous mass distributions gravitationally interacting only with each other. Population biologists study the evolution of one species procreating at a constant rate in an isolated ecosystem. And when studying the exchange of goods, economists consider a situation in which there are only two goods, two perfectly rational agents, no restrictions on available information, no transaction costs, no money, and dealings are done immediately. Their surface structure notwithstanding, no competent scientist would mistake descriptions of such systems as descriptions of an actual system: we know very well that there are no such systems. These descriptions are descriptions of a model-system, and scientists use model-systems to represent parts or aspects of the world they are interested in. Following common practice, I refer to those parts or aspects as target-systems. What are we to make of this? Is discourse about such models merely a picturesque and ultimately dispensable façon de parler? This was the view of some early twentieth century philosophers. Duhem (1906) famously guarded against confusing model building with scientific theorizing and argued that model building has no real place in science, beyond a minor heuristic role. The aim of science was, instead, to construct theories, with theories understood as classificatory or representative structures systematically presented and formulated in precise symbolic..
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Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther, Ryan Giordano, Michael D. Edge & Rasmus Nielsen (2015). The Mind, the Lab, and the Field: Three Kinds of Populations in Scientific Practice. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 52:12-21.
Rasmus Grønfeldt Winther (2012). Interweaving Categories: Styles, Paradigms, and Models. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 43 (4):628-639.
Darrell P. Rowbottom (2011). Approximations, Idealizations and 'Experiments' at the Physics-Biology Interface. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 42 (2):145-154.
Adam Toon (2011). Playing with Molecules. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 42 (4):580-589.

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