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The strategy of model building in population biology

Richard Levins



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Cluster of models. A mathematical model is neither an hypothesis nor a theory. Unlike the scientific hypothesis, a model is not verifiable directly by experiment. For all models are both true and false. Almost any plausible proposed relation among aspects of nature is likely to be true in the sense that it occurs (although rarely and slightly). Yet all models leave out a lot and are in that sense false, incomplete, inadequate. The validation of a model is not that it is "true" but that it generates good testable hypotheses relevant to important problems. A model may be discarded in favor of a more powerful one, but it usually is simply outgrown when the live issues are not any longer those for which it was designed. Unlike the theory, models are restricted by technical considerations to a few components at a time, even in systems which are complex. Thus a satisfactory theory is usually a cluster of models. These models are related to each other in several ways: as coordinate alternative models for the same set of phenomena, they jointly produce robust theorems; as complementary models they can cope with different aspects of the same problem and give complementary as well as overlapping results; as hierarchically arranged "nested" models, each provides an interpretation of the sufficient parameters of the next higher level where they are taken as given. [...] The multiplicity of models is imposed by the contradictory demands of a complex, heterogeneous nature and a mind that can only cope with few variables at a time; by the contradictory desiderata of generality, realism, and precision; by the need to understand and also to control; even by the opposing esthetic standards which emphasize the stark simplicity and power of a general theorem as against the richness and the diversity of living nature. These conflicts are irreconcilable. Therefore, the alternative approaches even of contending schools are part of a larger mixed strategy. But the conflict is about method, not nature, for the individual models, while they are essential for understanding reality, should not be confused with that reality itself. [...]


American Scientist, Vol. 54, No. 4. (1966), pp. 421-431 
Key: INRMM:14479957

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