Graphical Practice: Scientists as Interpreters of Diagrams (Presented at the Society for Philosophy of Science in Practice, Toronto, June 2013)

Benjamin Sheredos
Department of Philosophy and Center for Chronobiology
University of California, San Diego

One component of scientific practice is graphical practice (“GP”). Scientists painstakingly construct and annotate graphical media (diagrams, micrographs, line graphs, etc.) to direct attention to explanada, explanans, research methods, and more. As a few cognitive scientists and philosophers have argued, compared with bare linguistic media or “offline” cognition, graphical media subserve distinct cognitive strategies for problem-solving. Once interpreted, graphics can constrain and afford understandings of the domain of inquiry.
Formalistic accounts of explanation emphasizing laws have been rejected as inadequate in accounting for explanatory practices in the life sciences, where, as the new mechanistic philosophers have emphasized, explanatory “laws” are rare. Here I pursue a different issue, demonstrating the general inadequacy of traditional logico-formal accounts of form-content relations as means of understanding GPs.

Recent work has begun to address GPs’ departures from idealized form-content relations. In early work, Perini suggested GPs be understood in light of Nelson Goodman’s account of “notational systems” –  a symbol system in which traditional, fixed form-content relations are enforced such that:
(i) each formal element unambiguously represents a well-defined extension,
(ii) every object (in the domain) is unambiguously represented by some formal element(s) in the symbol system, and
(iii) simple formal elements can be combined to form complex, unambiguous representations of complex objects.
In more recent work, Perini suggests that we multiply notational systems to understand the multiplicity of GPs: each system of graphics depicts part of the domain of inquiry, but no unified system of formal elements depicts the whole domain. Likewise, Griesemer has argued that GPs can constitute theoretical models which exhibit “mismatch” to empirical content: a given system of graphics might fail to represent portions of the domain of inquiry.

I argue that a diachronic approach to GPs urges further departure from traditional conceptions of form-content relations. I seek to demonstrate four such departures via an analysis of distinct graphical depictions of the same system in chronobiology. First, by using old graphical forms in novel ways, biologists can radically reconceive their domain of inquiry – the instability in form-content relations over time can be valuable. Second, such innovations can be accomplished using a variety of ambiguous graphics whose form can be coherently mapped to the same domain of inquiry in multiple ways. Third, novel GPs can involve graphics which are built to be multiply interpretable – i.e., graphics which are meant to convey more content than can be borne by their formal elements under any single, stable interpretation. Finally, pre-existing graphics are not isolated from novel GPs: “idiosyncratic” formal elements of earlier graphics can be reinterpreted as piecemeal anticipations of a new understanding of the domain.

The analysis shows GPs to be a continuous, open-ended, and backward-reaching negotiation of the domain of inquiry. This serves to underscore the inadequacy of analyzing scientific practice in terms of fixed form-content relations, and the poverty of assuming one-to-one mappings between form and content. A plausible account must recognize researchers’ active roles in interpreting graphical forms as having a content, if GP (hence, scientific practice) is to be understood.