Are Model Organisms Theoretical Models?

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This article compares the epistemic roles of theoretical models and model organisms in science, and specifically the role of non-human animal models in biomedicine. Much of the previous literature on this topic shares an assumption that animal models and theoretical models have a broadly similar epistemic role—that of indirect representation of a target through the study of a surrogate system. Recently, Levy and Currie (2015) have argued that model organism research and theoretical modelling differ in the justification of model-to-target inferences, such that a unified account based on the widely accepted idea of modelling as indirect representation does not similarly apply to both. I defend a similar conclusion, but argue that the distinction between animal models and theoretical models does not always track a difference in the justification of model-to-target inferences. Case studies of the use of animal models in biomedicine are presented to illustrate this. However, Levy and Currie’s point can be argued for in a different way. I argue for the following distinction. Model organisms (and other concrete models) function as surrogate sources of evidence, from which results are transferred to their targets by empirical extrapolation. By contrast, theoretical modelling does not involve such an inductive step. Rather, theoretical models are used for drawing conclusions from what is already known or assumed about the target system. Codifying assumptions about the causal structure of the target in external representational media (e.g. equations, graphs) allows one to apply explicit inferential rules to reach conclusions that could not be reached with unaided cognition alone (cf. Kuorikoski and Ylikoski 2015).

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