Heuristics and Meta-heuristics in Scientific Judgement


Despite the increasing recognition that heuristics may be involved in myriad scientific activities, much about how to use them prudently remains obscure. As typically defined, heuristics are efficient rules or procedures for converting complex problems into simpler ones. But this increased efficiency and problem-solving power comes at the cost of a systematic bias. As Wimsatt showed, biased modelling heuristics can conceal errors, leading to poor decisions or inaccurate models. This liability to produce errors presents a fundamental challenge to the philosophical value of heuristic analyses. Heuristics may be powerful and efficient procedures, but their practical value for science and epistemology is significantly mitigated if we do not have a principled methodology for knowing how to use them wisely. In this essay, I extend Wimsatt’s analyses to argue that this challenge for a heuristic methodology can be met by appealing to second-order, or meta-, heuristics—that is, practical guidelines that prescribe the appropriate conditions for a first-order heuristic’s use. 1 Introduction2 Background3 Heuristics and Meta-heuristics4 A Hierarchical Model and Three Applications4.1 Decision making in emergency medicine4.2 Mathematical explanation in physics4.3 Resilience in ecological management5 Conclusion.

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