Heuristic approaches to models and modeling in systems biology

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Prediction and control sufficient for reliable medical and other interventions are prominent aims of modeling in systems biology. The short-term attainment of these goals has played a strong role in projecting the importance and value of the field. In this paper I identify the standard models must meet to achieve these objectives as predictive robustness—predictive reliability over large domains. Drawing on the results of an ethnographic investigation and various studies in the systems biology literature, I explore four current obstacles to achieving predictive robustness; data constraints, parameter uncertainty, collaborative constraints and system-scale requirements. I use a case study and the commentary of systems biologists themselves to show that current practices in the field, rather than pursuing these goals, frequently use models heuristically to investigate and build understanding of biological systems that do not meet standards of predictive robustness but are nonetheless effective uses of computation. A more heuristic conception of modeling allows us to interpret current practices as ways that manage these obstacles more effectively, particularly collaborative constraints, such that modelers can in the long-run at least work towards prediction and control.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)353-372
JournalBiology and philosophy
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2016


  • Systems biology
  • Prediction
  • Control
  • Heuristic
  • Collaboration
  • Parameters
  • Mesoscopic modeling
  • 2023 OA procedure


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