Visions visualised? On the evidential status of scientific visualisations

In Erna Fiorentini (ed.), On Visualization. A Multicentric Critique beyond Infographics. Berlin et al.: (forthcoming)
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‘Visualisations play an important role in science’, this seems to be an uncontroversial statement today. Scientists not only use visual representations as means to communicate their research results in publications or talks, but also often as surrogates for their objects of interest during the process of research. Thus, we can make a distinction between two contexts of usage here, namely the explanatory and the exploratory context. The focus of this paper is on the latter one. Obviously, using visualisations as surrogates for their objects of depiction presupposes the assumption that the former can tell us something relevant about the latter. Thus, a particular referential relation between object and image has to be assumed that can transfer the relevant information. Furthermore, as science is a collaborative enterprise – a social activity – this information has to be intersubjectively accessible and stable. Nonetheless, philosophers of science still quarrel about the epistemic and ontological status of such visualisations. After all, they are means to visualise theoretical entities, such as the Higgs Boson, i.e. entities that are principally not observable with the unaided eye. Especially the significant reliance on information technology devices to access this world of the unobservable provokes a lot of suspicion with regard to the referential status of such visualisations. In this sense, quite a few philosophers adopt social constructivism as an explanatory hypothesis. A particular image is constructed with the aid of instruments and theoretical assumptions; hence it does not refer to an entity outside this system. In this paper, I will critically analyse this assumption and try to argue for an alternative point of view.

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Nicola Mößner
Aachen University of Technology


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