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Luana Poliseli
Emergence of scientific understanding in real-time ecological research practice

Scientific understanding as a subject of inquiry has become widely discussed in philosophy of science and is often addressed through case studies from history of science. Even though these historical reconstructions engage with details of scientific practice, they usually provide only limited information about the gradual formation of understanding in ongoing processes of model and theory construction.

Based on a qualitative ethnographic study of an ecological research project, Luana Poliseli shifts attention from understanding in the context of historical case studies to evidence of current case studies. She worked closely with an ecologist to develop a heuristics set that would guide explanation construction and model building. The heuristics set was built in accordance with ecological theories and the new mechanistic philosophy of science.


Collaboration dynamics between philosopher and ecologist to develop a heuristics set.

By taking Henk de Regt’s contextual theory of scientific understanding into the field1, her work confirms core tenets of the contextual theory (e.g. the crucial role of visualization and visualizability) suggesting a normative character with respect to scientific activities.

However, the case study also shows the limitations of de Regt’s latest version of this theory as an attempt to explain the development of understanding in current practice. This article provides a model representing the emergence of scientific understanding that exposes main features of scientific understanding such as its gradual formation, its relation to skills and imagination, and its capacity for knowledge selectivity.


Model representing the emergence of scientific understanding in current ecological research practice.


The ethnographic evidence presented here supports the claim that something unique can be learned by looking into ongoing research practices that can’t be gained by studying historical case studies.


Read the full article here.

Poliseli, L. Emergence of scientific understanding in real-time ecological research practice. HPLS 42, 51 (2020).


1 Understanding Scientific Understanding. Oxford University Press, New York, 2017