A Very Short And Fairly Understandable Introduction to Models

Created Monday 29 June 2020

At …and Then There’s Physics , there was a post about the recent Nature comment on a “modelling manifesto”, “Five ways to ensure that models serve society”.

I’ve despaired in the past about some of the uses and abuses of models in research and, in particular, as blunt political instruments used to bludgeon the hoi polloi into submission. For some years, I’ve been thinking that there should be a course or a resource that teaches what everyone should know about models in science and how they can be used for, ahem, multiple purposes. So I immediately latched on Jean Goodwin’s comment:

ATTW, One audience I have in mind for the Manifesto is undergrads. I’ve been wanting for a while, and even more since March, to put together a course called something like Modelling: Critical Thinking & Communication. Entry level, larger enrollment. Non-STEM majors would learn about the kinds of questions they should be asking to probe models that they encounter, used or abused, in policy arguments. STEM majors would learn how to communicate what they know to nonspecialist audiences–which basically means answering all those questions in advance. By the end, everyone would be able to use words like “sensitivity” and “boundary conditions” a bit more cogently.

But I haven’t gone forward with this, since I’m missing resources: in addition to things like a modeller-colleague to co-develop the course and some “spare time”, there aren’t a lot of readings/tools/resources that would work. The Manifesto would–it’s on an issue that students will recognize for at least a few years, it’s written at the intelligent layperson level, it pretty much says some things that are well known (to me, that’s the biggest critique of the piece) in vivid language, and it has a couple of claims so questionable that a bright undergrad will call them out. Which is as it should be, since critical thinking is an aim of the course.

What resources would y’all suggest? They need to:
– stick with the big picture, not your fields’ latest squabbles
– be decision-relevant in some way
– mostly fall within US undergraduates’ background knowledge, and if there are technical sections, they need to be cut-able without too much harm
– overall, represent various approaches to modelling in diverse disciplines
– short! and as my students say, “fun”

I have an elementary “Introduction to the Scientific Method”-type course coming up again this fall, and would be interested in developing this theme at least a bit further. Anyone else? Let me know here or on Twitter, @jmkorhon_en !

Resources, gathered from the thread above:





Books, suggested by Brigitte Nerlich

Harré, R. 1960. Metaphor, model, and mechanism. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 50:101-22.
Harré, R. 1970. The principles of scientific thinking. London: Macmillan.
Hesse, M.B. 1966. Models and analogies in science. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press.
Hughes, R.I.G. 1997. Models and representation. Philosophy of Science 64:325-36.
Ravetz, J. 2003. Models as metaphors. In Public participation in sustainability science: A handbook, ed. B. Kasemir , J. Jäger , Carlo C. Jaeger , and M. T. Gardner , with a foreword by W. C. Clark and A. Wokaun. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Wartofsky, M.W. 1979. Models: Representation and the scientific understanding . Dordrecht: D. Reidel.
Yearley, S. 1999. Computer models and the public’s understanding of science: A case-study analysis. Social Studies of Science 296:845-66.

Max Black’s Models and Archetypes

About J. M. Korhonen

as himself
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2 Responses to A Very Short And Fairly Understandable Introduction to Models

  1. jeangoodwin says:

    Hi, Janne! Thanks for taking up the torch–it’s a much-needed project. Even just a list of useful resources would be a big step forward. I have a lot of bibliography, but it needs some sorting & triage. What do you see as most useful?

    One cool idea would be to get OUP to publish a Very Short Introduction to modelling–probably all they’d need is the right author to make it happen. You?!?

    I’m particularly interested in developing a set of critical questions that interested citizens can use to probe the models that turn up in controversies. That’s a little bit different from helping people understand models–it’s more active, but may also involve less knowledge. Some colleagues and I brainstormed some ideas; email me and I can add you to the Google doc.

    Finally, another thing I wanted to do in the course was to let students do some modelling themselves. Both back-of-envelope modelling, but also trying out an off-the-shelf tool. I have a vague memory that the participatory water modelling folks may have developed some, and there is this watershed simulation from a former colleague:
    Or people who work with GIS may have something. Collecting some DIY materials would also be cool. Thanks again!

    • Hi Jean, and apologies, noticed your reply only now!

      I really have only the faintest idea of what to include and what not. I dabble in simple toy models every now and then and used to unpick energy systems models (that is, those models that were used to analyze e.g. 100% renewable energy scenarios); beyond that, my competences are limited, but the latter exercise taught me that more people should have the basic competencies required to look “under the hood” of models that are used to justify policy decisions – i.e., exactly what you are interested in!

      I really like the OUP idea – deliberately stole the title 🙂 – but might not be the best author. I’ll drop you an e-mail shortly however!

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