Saturday, January 15, 2011

Science review of A Vast Machine

A review by Richard Somerville just came out. You can see it here.

In the same review, Somerville discusses philosopher Eric Winsberg's new book Science in the Age of Computer Simulation. Winsberg is one of a few intrepid philosophers who have taken up the challenge of understanding the logic of simulation and modeling, which lie at the core of modern science (and which I discuss extensively in A Vast Machine.)

From the review:
Winsberg suggests that philosophy of [contemporary] science... ought to concern itself with the subject of simulating complex phenomena within existing theory, as opposed to its traditional focus on the creation of novel scientific theories. Winsberg concludes,
[W]hat we might call the ontological relationship between simulations and experiments is quite complicated. Is it true that simulations are, after all, a particular species of experiment? I have tried to argue against this claim, while at the same time insisting that the differences between simulation and experiment are more subtle than some of the critics of the claim have suggested. Most important, I have tried to argue that we should disconnect questions about the identity of simulations and experiments from questions of the epistemic power of simulations.
Philosophy has been trailing the actual state of science for a long time now, so it's good to see this kind of work coming out.

I'm afraid, though, that it's still trailing the bleeding edge — we've entered an age of data-intensive science, which presents its own epistemic challenges: for example, how much does theory matter when statistical analysis of huge datasets reveals strong correlations? If predictive power is your main goal, sometimes data can take the place of explanation. (Not sure I actually believe this, but it's a compelling point of view.) Take a look at Hey et al., The Fourth Paradigm if this kind of thing interests you.

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