Taming the tyranny of scales: models and scale in the geosciences

Synthese 199 (5-6):14167-14199 (2021)
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While the predominant focus of the philosophical literature on scientific modeling has been on single-scale models, most systems in nature exhibit complex multiscale behavior, requiring new modeling methods. This challenge of modeling phenomena across a vast range of spatial and temporal scales has been called the tyranny of scales problem. Drawing on research in the geosciences, I synthesize and analyze a number of strategies for taming this tyranny in the context of conceptual, physical, and mathematical modeling. This includes several strategies that can be deployed in physical modeling, even when strict dynamical scaling fails. In all cases, I argue that having an adequate conceptual model—given both the nature of the system and the particular purpose of the model—is essential. I draw a distinction between depiction and representation, and use this research in the geosciences to advance a number of debates in the philosophy of modeling.
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