Tools or Toys?
On Specific Challenges for Modeling and the Epistemology of Models in the Social Sciences

Eckhart Arnold

1 Introduction
2 The role of models in science
3 Why computer simulations are merely models and not experiments
4 The epistemology of simulations at work: How simulations are used to study chemical reactions in the ribosome
5 How do models explain in the social sciences?
6 Common obstacles for modeling in the social sciences
7 Conclusions
    7.1 Consequences for modellers in the social sciences
        7.1.1 Consequences for problem orientated research
        7.1.2 Conseqeunces for method centered research
    7.2 Consequences for philosophers of science

7.1 Consequences for modellers in the social sciences

As far as the consequences for the practitioners are concerned, one can find two quite different research strategies in the social sciences: Research that is method centered and research that is problem orientated.[11] The consequences to be drawn for these types of research strategies are somewhat different, but follow the same general principle as a guideline, which I call the “principle of appropriate method”:

Principle of appropriate method: The use of a certain method for investigating a specific research question is justified if no superior method for investigating the same question exists and if the results that it yields are more reliable than mere guessing.

The rationale behind this principle is that ultimately the goal of science is to find something out about reality, i.e. to describe, to understand and to explain pieces of reality. In order to do so all kinds of methods are employed. Now, as a result of the division of labour in science, some scientists specialize on the development of theories, of models or of methods while other scientists specialize on the empirical research. There is good reason for specializing in this way, especially if the mastering of particular methods, like computer simulations or mathematical models requires specific skills that it takes years to learn. But the study of models and the development of methods is not an end in itself. Because the ultimate goal of science is to generate knowledge about reality, all of its activities must either directly or indirectly be related to this goal. And a certain scientific activity is justified to the degree in which it is appropriate to serve this goal. The “principle of appropriate method” substantiates this idea with respect to the employment of specific methods. Even under the conditions of scientific division of labour a scientist has a certain responsibility for making sure that the scientific activity she is engaged in serves the ultimate goal of science.

[11] This distinction is motivated by Green's and Shapiro's criticism of method centered research (Green/Shapiro 1994, Shapiro 2005). Rather than dismissing method centered research in general, as Green and Shapiro do, I consider method centered research as a different kind of research strategy and try to catch the defects of the method centered strategy by placing specific requirements on the research design of method centered research.

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