Is Captain Kirk a natural blonde? Do X-ray crystallographers dream of electron clouds? Comparing model-based inferences in science with fiction

In Otávio Bueno, George Darby, Steven French & Dean Rickles (eds.), Thinking About Science, Reflecting on Art: Bringing Aesthetics and Philosophy of Science Together. London, UK: (2018)
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Scientific models share one central characteristic with fiction: their relation to the physical world is ambiguous. It is often unclear whether an element in a model represents something in the world or presents an artifact of model building. Fiction, too, can resemble our world to varying degrees. However, we assign a different epistemic function to scientific representations. As artifacts of human activity, how are scientific representations allowing us to make inferences about real phenomena? In reply to this concern, philosophers of science have started analyzing scientific representations in terms of fictionalization strategies. Many arguments center on a dyadic relation between the model and its target system, focusing on structural resemblances and “as if” scenarios. This chapter provides a different approach. It looks more closely at model building to analyze the interpretative strategies dealing with the representational limits of models. How do we interpret ambiguous elements in models? Moreover, how do we determine the validity of model-based inferences to information that is not an explicit part of a representational structure? I argue that the problem of ambiguous inference emerges from two features of representations, namely their hybridity and incompleteness. To distinguish between fictional and non-fictional elements in scientific models my suggestion is to look at the integrative strategies that link a particular model to other methods in an ongoing research context. To exemplify this idea, I examine protein modeling through X-ray crystallography as a pivotal method in biochemistry.

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Ann-Sophie Barwich
Indiana University, Bloomington


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