Scientific method

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We will describe views on inductive inference and methods for inferring general theories as they have developed from the scientific revolution to modern times. Our second topic is the development of methods for discovering causal relationships.

Modern Methodology. A strong influence on contemporary methodology is interdisciplinary research. In the 20th century, the question of how we can use observations to attain empirical knowledge became the subject of research in a number of disciplines, such as statistics, econometrics, and computer science. Modern philosophy of method continues to contribute to and draw on developments in related disciplines.
Another strong influence on contemporary methodology are studies of the history of science, which captured the attention of philosophers due to the ground-breaking work of Thomas Kuhn (1922-1996) on the “Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. Kuhn argued that scientific textbook accounts of the history of science as a wholly progressive series of discoveries are false for scientific revolutions. His work has suggested that changes of method across revolutions undercut attempts to apply common standards to evaluate pre and post revolution theories. Kuhn also criticized the methodological ideas of Karl Popper (1902-1994). Popper had asked the question of what distinguishes (“demarcates”) scientific hypotheses from non-scientific hypotheses. He emphasized that science proceeds by testing hypotheses against empirical data, and thus located the characteristic of scientific hypotheses in their empirical testability. Popper’s basic view of testing a hypothesis against data was to derive predictions from the hypothesis and see if they matched the data (“conjectures and refutations”). If the data do not match the predictions, they “falsify” the hypothesis. This led Popper to postulate that scientific hypotheses must be falsifiable. Popper’s falsifiability criterion has been very influential, arguably more outside of the philosophy of science than inside. Kuhn objected to the falsifiability concept because, according to him, history shows that scientists do not subject major scientific theories (or “paradigms”) such as Ptolemaic astronomy to falsification. Instead, scientists view a mismatch between theory and data as an “anomaly”, a puzzle to be resolved by further research. Many philosophers of science took Kuhn’s moral to be that logic-based analyses of scientific method cannot capture the dynamics of major scientific change. Scientific revolutions would instead be determined by complex socio-political processes within the scientific community, played out within the specific historical context. Modern methodologists aim to avoid both the extremes of a context-free universal “scientific logic” on the one hand, and an entirely context-specific study of particular historical episodes on the other.

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