No, senator, science can’t do away with models

ClimateModels EpidemiologyMethods Science ScientificMethod Staff

Enlarge / Senator John Cornyn (center, black suit) takes a photo with the 2017 astronaut class. (credit: NASA Johnson)

On Friday, Texas Senator John Cornyn took to Twitter with some advice for scientists: models aren't part of the scientific method. Scientists have responded with a mix of bafflement and exasperation. And Cornyn’s misconception is common enough—and important enough—that it’s worth exploring.

Cornyn’s beef with models echoes a talking point often brought up by people who want to reject inconvenient conclusions of systems sciences. In reality, “you can make a model say anything you want” is about as potent an argument as “all swans are white.” The latter is either a disingenuous argument, or you have an embarrassingly limited familiarity with swans.

Models aren't perfect. They can generate inaccurate predictions. They can generate highly uncertain predictions when the science is uncertain. And some models can be genuinely bad, producing useless and poorly supported predictions. But the idea that models aren’t central to science is deeply and profoundly wrong. It’s true that the criticism is usually centered on mathematical simulations, but these are just one type of model on a spectrum—and there is no science without models.

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