“Tuning” in your science

I wish I knew how to code LaTeX tables into WordPress interfaces.


Tuning is the use of theories and models to produce a desired effect, such as a substance with specified properties or a bridge that will bear a certain amount of weight and stand up to a certain amount of wind. It is a design-oriented, engineering methodology, and it plays a central role in scientific research. Philosophers of science have largely overlooked tuning, and I have written elsewhere about why this happens and why it is a problem.

For now, here is a fun piece of internet-scavenging: I have diligently researched* some Facts about the use of the word “tuning” in scientific articles published in 2013.

  • “Tuning” shows up in over 15,000 articles in each of chemistry, nano, materials sciences, physics, and biology. It shows up over 10,000 times in neuroscience and medicine.
  • “Tuning” appears almost as often as “explanation” in biology, neuroscience, chemistry, and physics.
  • It shows up more often than “explanation” in nano and materials science.
  • It does not show up as often in climate science, geology, psychiatry, psychology, or cognitive science.

My current paper is about theory and model use in tuning, comparing and contrasting tuning uses with explanatory, predictive or descriptive uses of theories and models. It is sometimes worth making the point that tuning is kind of a big deal and it is, therefore, extra weird that philosophers haven’t taken it up as whole-heartedly as explanation.

Due diligence disclaimer 1: Of course there are philosophers who have thought about tuning in some form or another. e.g. Mark Wilson, Ian Hacking, the design problems and philosophy of engineering crowds. Woodward and the mechanisms crew have language to talk about tuning in terms of lever-wiggling, but it doesn’t often become the subject of their discussions.

Due diligence disclaimer 2: In some of these searches, “tuning” might be referring to acoustics and not necessarily being used metaphorically to talk about design-oriented methodology. Still, it’s hard to deny that “tuning” is a major use of theories and models when you look at lists of article titles like this:

Biology: “Tuning the Dials of Synthetic Biology”
Neuroscience: “Correlations on Ion Channel Expression Emerge from Homeostatic Tuning Rules”
Physics: “Electrical Tuning of Valley Magnetic Moment through Symmetry Control in Bilayer MoS2”
Materials Science: “Tuning Molecular Adhesion via Material Anisotropy”
Chemistry: “Tuning the Surface Chemistry of Pd by Atomic C and H: A Microscopic Picture”
Climate Science: “Climate Models Sensitive to Tuning of Cloud Parameters”
Nano: “Tuning the Electrical and Optical Properties of Graphene by Ozone Treatment for Patterning Monolithic Transparent Electrodes”

*i.e. compare-and-contrast Google Scholar searched

About burstenj

Assistant Professor of Philosophy
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