Empirically grounded models play an absolutely vital role in science. But science is fundamentally about understanding the natural world, not just accounting for the results of specific experiments. Our distinction between data-driven and theory-driven models aligns closely with the practical/theoretical distinction made in a recent textbook on biological modeling (Ellner & Guckenheimer, 2006). While data-driven models attempt to obtain general insights through the study of specific systems, theory-driven models attempt to study general issues directly by formulating highly simplified models that focus on the commonalities of many specific systems. Both kinds of models are essential to science, and concerns have repeatedly been raised about the dangers of emphasizing data-driven modeling over theory in biology (De Schutter, 2008; Lazebnik, 2004; McCollum, 2000).
Beer, R.D. and Williams, P.L. (2009). Animals and animats: Why not both iguanas? (A commentary on “Animals versus animats: or Why not the real iguana?” by Barbara Webb). Adaptive Behavior 17:296-302.