Friday, May 3, 2013

Not all modeling is mathematical!

I found a nice blog from an entomologist at 'a teaching institution' through a post on twitter that raised my hackles a bit. The tweet, and title of the blog post was:

Ant science - how avoiding modeling led to a cool discovery

By this, he meant *mathematical* modeling. In the wake of the whole EO Wilson good scientist=\Good at math post on WSJ (yes, I'll post about that later in detail), I thought this deserved a reply. So, I responded with a comment on his blog, which I will append here. The comment is basically a short summary of a previous post, but it bears repeating, I think.

His post describes how he made a discovery about an species of ant by looking for big picture patterns, and not paying so much attention to the details... Being a Kepler, not a Newton if you will... It is worth a read, as it is well written and interesting, especially if you like ants.  Anyways, here's what I said in return, referencing an earlier post of mine:

Hello, and a pleasure to find your blog. I enjoyed this post, and it is fitting as I literally JUST put down EOWs new book 'letters to a young scientist'. Anyways, I'd like to respectfully disagree a bit, and mostly semantically. This is NOT avoidance of modeling. It is just doing a modeling of a different sort. I recently (started and) wrote a blog post about just this issue, specifically in communication between mathematical and experimental biologists - which can be read here:

Whose model is it anyways?

Where I talk about how we are really ALL modelers! Our models just look different. Where the data collecting scientist (think Tycho Brahe) spends his/her time dreaming about where to look and what to look for, the pattern former (your role here - think Johannes Kepler) seeks the big picture patterns and the 'modeler' in your terminology (Isaac Newton in the analogy I've been using) puts together the more rigorous connections. There is no rigorous theory without patterns to connect, and there are no patterns without data. We are all on the same team. And, it's a lot of fun whichever role you play.

Anyways, great post, just wanted to argue the semantics :)


For full disclosure, I'm a phd student in mathematical biology.

For even more full disclosure, I stole the 'we are all modelers' from my mentor +Alexander Anderson - cheers Sandy.  And it turns out that I stole the whole Brahe->Kepler->Newton thing from Lord Robert May's lovely article on mathematical modeling in biology, though I didn't mean to.