Computer Modeling in Climate Science: Experiment, Explanation, Pluralism

Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh (2003)

Wendy Parker
Virginia Tech
Computer simulation modeling is an important part of contemporary scientific practice but has not yet received much attention from philosophers. The present project helps to fill this lacuna in the philosophical literature by addressing three questions that arise in the context of computer simulation of Earth's climate. Computer simulation experimentation commonly is viewed as a suspect methodology, in contrast to the trusted mainstay of material experimentation. Are the results of computer simulation experiments somehow deeply problematic in ways that the results of material experiments are not? I argue against categorical skepticism toward the results of computer simulation experiments by revealing important parallels in the epistemologies of material and computer simulation experimentation. It has often been remarked that simple computer simulation models---but not complex ones---contribute substantially to our understanding of the atmosphere and climate system. Is this view of the relative contributions of simple and complex models tenable? I show that both simple and complex climate models can promote scientific understanding and argue that the apparent contribution of simple models depends upon whether a causal or deductive account of scientific understanding is adopted. When two incompatible scientific theories are under consideration, they typically are viewed as competitors, and we seek evidence that refutes at least one of the theories. In the study of climate change, however, logically incompatible computer simulation models are accepted as complementary resources for investigating future climate. How can we make sense of this use of incompatible models? I show that a collection of incompatible climate models persists in part because of difficulties faced in evaluating and comparing climate models. I then discuss the rationale for using these incompatible models together and argue that this climate model pluralism has both competitive and integrative components
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