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

7.1.1 Consequences for problem orientated research

Under “problem orientated research” I understand the kind of research where scientists try to answer a particular empirical research question. If a scientist follows a problem orientated research strategy then the problem is fixed and the methods should be chosen or disposed of as appropriate. From what has been said before about the specific conditions for modeling in the social sciences, two obvious conclusions follow:

  1. Keep your options open: Other options than the use of models or simulations should be evaluated as well. It might even be a good idea to use several different methods to get the most comprehensive view on the problem.

    A possible exception to this rule is the science of economics, where there seem to be few methodological alternatives to modeling. It almost seems as if in economics, any answer of an economical question needs to be rendered in the form of a model in order to be acceptable to the community. (I am not in a position to judge whether what appears to be the common understanding of economists about their science is misguided or not. Therefore, I am just mentioning this fact.)

  2. Choose wisely: If models or simulations do not work for a particular problem, then models or simulations need not and, in fact, should not be used. For some types of research questions (as in the aforementioned example of Orlando Figes' oral history of Stalinist Russia (see page 6.6)), formal models are simply inappropriate.

    But even in those cases where the kind of research question does not preclude a mathematical approach prima facie, modeling is not always worth the effort. If a model can neither be validated empirically nor vindicated theoretically then there is no point in modeling.

t g+ f @