History of Science and Technology/Minnesota Center for Philosophy of Science Colloquium

Week of Monday, February 26th 2018

Friday, March 2nd 2018
Speaker: Alisa Bokulich, Department of Philosophy, Boston University
Subject: "Using Models to Correct Data: Paleodiversity and the Fossil Record"
Refreshments served at 3:15 p.m.

It has long been recognized that models play a crucial role in science, and in data more specifically. However, as our philosophical understanding of theoretical models has grown, our view of data models has arguably languished. In this talk I use the case of how paleontologists are constructing data-model representations of the history of paleodiversity from the fossil record to show how our views about data models should be updated. In studying the history and evolution of life, the fossil record is a vital source of data. However, as both Lyell and Darwin recognized early on, it is a highly incomplete and biased representation. A central research program to emerge in paleontology is what D. Sepkoski has called the “generalized” (or what I prefer to call “corrected”) reading of the fossil record. Building on this historical work, I examine in detail the ways in which various models and computer simulations are being used to correct the data in paleontology today. On the basis of this research I argue for the following: First, the notion of a data model should be disentangled from the set-theoretic, ‘instantial’ view of models. Data models, like other models in science, should be understood as representations. Second, representation does not mean perfectly accurate depiction. Data models should instead be assessed as adequate-for-a-purpose. Third, the ‘purity’ of a data model is not a measure of its epistemic reliability. I conclude by drawing some parallels between data models in paleontology and data models in climate science.

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