Article Text

Download PDFPDF
Purposes and duties in scientific modelling
  1. Eric Winsberg1,
  2. Stephanie Harvard2
  1. 1 Department of Philosophy, University of South Florida, Tampa, Florida, USA
  2. 2 Faculty of Pharmaceutical Sciences, The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
  1. Correspondence to Dr Eric Winsberg, University of South Florida, Tampa, Florida, USA; winsberg{at}


More people than ever are paying attention to philosophical questions about epidemiological models, including their susceptibility to the influence of social and ethical values, sufficiency to inform policy decisions under certain conditions, and even their fundamental nature. One important question pertains to the purposes of epidemiological models, for example, are COVID-19 models for ‘prediction’ or ‘projection’? Are they adequate for making causal inferences? Is one of their goals, or virtues, to change individual responses to the pandemic? In this essay, we offer our perspective on these questions and place them in the context of other recent philosophical arguments about epidemiological models. We argue that clarifying the intended purpose of a model, and assessing its adequacy for that purpose, are moral-epistemic duties, responsibilities which pertain to knowledge but have moral significance nonetheless. This moral significance, we argue, stems from the inherent value-ladenness of models, along with the potential for models to be used in political decision making in ways that conflict with liberal values and which could lead to downstream harms. Increasing conversation about the moral significance of modelling, we argue, could help us to resist further eroding our standards of democratic scrutiny in the COVID-19 era.

  • models
  • theoreticaL
  • COVID-19
  • climate change
  • public health

Data availability statement

Data sharing not applicable as no datasets generated and/or analysed for this study.

This article is made freely available for personal use in accordance with BMJ’s website terms and conditions for the duration of the covid-19 pandemic or until otherwise determined by BMJ. You may use, download and print the article for any lawful, non-commercial purpose (including text and data mining) provided that all copyright notices and trade marks are retained.

Statistics from

Request Permissions

If you wish to reuse any or all of this article please use the link below which will take you to the Copyright Clearance Center’s RightsLink service. You will be able to get a quick price and instant permission to reuse the content in many different ways.

Data availability statement

Data sharing not applicable as no datasets generated and/or analysed for this study.

View Full Text


  • Contributors We wrote this paper together with equal contributions.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; externally peer reviewed.