of Bonn , Germany
How Scientific Models Represent:
Seeking a Cognitive Account
Some of the most iconic images of our age are models
of scientific phenomena—the three-dimensional multi-colored
double-helix model of DNA; the solar system models representing
the structure of the atom; and models of the human brain that look
like wiring diagrams. Computer models of the earth’s weather
systems are a regular feature of the evening news. Yet as familiar
as they are, models are very puzzling. And as Dr. Daniela Bailer-Jones
can attest, they don’t become less so after you have studied
them intensely. But having spent a semester at the Center for Philosophy
of Science doing so, she feels she has made significant progress.
She is also spreading the word. Early on in her visit she organized
an informal reading group looking at various philosophical discussions
of scientific models attended by both faculty and graduate students.
Having previously taken an M.Phil. degree in radioas-tronomy, Daniela
continued in history and philosophy of science. In this subject
she received a Ph.D. from Cambridge University in 1998, during which
time she met and married her husband Dr. Coryn Bailer-Jones. She,
Coryn, and their four-year-old son Ezra were originally scheduled
to join us from University of Bonn a year earlier, but a heroic
battle with cancer forced Daniela to postpone her fellowship. It
is thus a very special pleasure for us to hear her infectious laugh
in the halls of the Center this year.
Bailer-Jones’s interest in scientific models stems from a
desire to grasp their roles in helping us to understand the world
around us. She sees the use of models as a particularly systematic
way of capturing and describing natural phenomena. She is suspicious
of philosophical accounts of scientific models that are not in contact
with actual scientific practice, and thus focuses on the concrete
development of models, for example by astrophysicists trying to
understand radio sources. In addition to looking at published uses
of such models, she also interviews scientists in order to find
out what they think models are and what they use them for.
Before they are publicly accessible in journals or on the Internet,
Bailer-Jones reminds us, scientific models are cognitive tools,
aids in helping us think about the difficult and complicated world
around us. Bailer-Jones is thus also systematically investigating
research in the cognitive sciences, and especially cognitive psychology,
to see if it sheds light on the scientific use of models. She is
especially hopeful that recent work in cognitive psychology on visual
representations and on child development will have more or less
direct application to her work. This has a possibly paradoxical
consequence, since a quick look at that work reveals that it makes
pervasive use of…models!
Like all models, scientific models are often incomplete and highly
idealized, i.e. offering us incomplete and stylized representations
of the phenomenon that is modeled. Mathematical models, for example,
can be highly abstract and idealized by comparison with the phenomena
they are intended to model. Moreover, there are often known inconsistencies
between two models in a single area of science. What intrigues Dr.
Bailer-Jones is that, despite these apparent shortcomings, models
nevertheless continue to be crucial tools in the tool kit of the
working scientist. She speculates that it is not only in areas of
science where there are serious gaps in our understanding that models
play an important role; they allow us to think fruitfully both where
we lack a coherent and detailed account of nature and where we have
Looking ahead, she plans to study, within the context of developmental
psychology, models that describe causal-mechanical relations. Certain
models often seem to develop narratives about how one thing brings
about another, and this seems somehow to help us understand what
is going on—even when we are well aware that the events being
modeled happen simultaneously! Riding a bike is a useful model!
You push down the pedal, and as you do the back wheel starts moving.
Nevertheless we often describe such events by telling a mechanical
story—you push down the pedal, it (then) turns the cogwheel
that (then) moves the chain. The chain (then) turns the axle of
the back wheel of the bike that (then) starts turning. Unlike a
model such as the static, three-dimensional double helix, these
causal mechanical models are intended to help us better understand
the causal relationships among the components of a natural system.
This way of thinking is so ingrained in the modern scientific worldview
that it desperately needs the critical reflections of a philosopher
of science. It is a source of pride at the Center that we were able
to give Daniela Bailer-Jones the time to reflect on scientific models.
Her enthusiasm has proved infectious as her laugh.
Seeking a Cognitive Account
Daniela Bailer-Jones is interested in, among other things, cognitive
aspects of science and recent history of philosophy of science.
Her work centers on scientific models and she is currently writing
a book on the 20th century treatment of scientific models in philosophy
of science. She came to Pittsburgh together with her husband Coryn,
an astronomer, and her four-year-old son Ezra. Coryn is affiliated
with the Department of Physics at Carnegie Mellon University and
Ezra works on perfecting his American accent at The Children’s
Center of Pittsburgh. Daniela received her Ph.D. from Cambridge,
UK, in 1998 and has since been teaching at the Universities of Paderborn
and Bonn in Germany. She has been accepted into the Emmy-Noether
Program of the German Research Council with a project called “How
Scientific Models Represent: Towards a Cognitive Account,”
and her research visit to Pittsburgh took place under the auspices
of this program. And in her spare time … she frequents the
14 November 2006
Sadly, we have just learned that Daniela has lost her long battle with cancer. More . . .