Explanation, prediction, description, and information theory

Synthese 20 (3):308 - 334 (1969)
The distinction between explanation and prediction has received much attention in recent literature, but the equally important distinction between explanation and description (or between prediction and description) remains blurred. This latter distinction is particularly important in the social sciences, where probabilistic models (or theories) often play dual roles as explanatory and descriptive devices. The distinction between explanation (or prediction) and description is explicated in the present paper in terms of information theory. The explanatory (or predictive) power of a probabilistic model is identified with information taken from (or transmitted by) the environment (e.g., the independent, experimentally manipulated variables), while the descriptive power of a model reflects additional information taken from (or transmitted by) the data. Although information is usually transmitted by the data in the process of estimating parameters, it turns out that the number of free parameters is not a reliable index of transmitted information. Thus, the common practice of treating parameters as degrees-of-freedom in testing probabilistic models is questionable. Finally, this information-theoretic analysis of explanation, prediction, and description suggests ways of resolving some recent controversies surrounding the pragmatic aspects of explanation and the so-called structural identity thesis.
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