A Dialogue on the Role of Computational Modeling in Developmental Science


  • We thank Peter Vishton, Chris Moore, and Rob Goldstone for participating in the 2007 Cognitive Development Society symposium that was the basis of this invited article. We also thank Martha Alibali, Sammy Perone, and Jenny Saffran for feedback on earlier versions of the work. John P. Spencer was supported by the National Science Foundation (HSD 0527698) and the National Institutes of Health (R01-MH062480). Jochen Triesch was supported by the European Union through project MEXT-CT-2006-042484 (“PLICON”) and by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) within the “Bernstein Focus: Neurotechnology” through research Grant 01GQ0840. Gedeon Deák was supported by the National Science Foundation (HSD-0827040), and the Temporal Dynamics Learning Center.

concerning this article should be addressed to Vanessa R. Simmering, Department of Psychology, University of Wisconsin–Madison, 1202 W. Johnson St., Madison, WI 53706; e-mail: simmering@wisc.edu.


Abstract— All sciences use models of some variety to understand complex phenomena. In developmental science, however, modeling is mostly limited to linear, algebraic descriptions of behavioral data. Some researchers have suggested that complex mathematical models of developmental phenomena are a viable (even necessary) tool that provide fertile ground for developing and testing theory as well as for generating new hypotheses and predictions. This article explores the concerns, attitudes, and historical trends that underlie the tension between two cultures: one in which computational simulations of behavior are an important complement to observation and experimentation and another that emphasizes evidence from behavioral experiments and linear models enhanced by verbal descriptions. This tension is explored as a dialogue among three characters: Ed (Experimental Developmentalist), Mira (Modeling Inclusive Research Advocate), and Phil (Philosopher of Science).