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Kuhn vs Popper - About James H. Collier

Kuhn vs Popper - About James H. Collier

Lakatos differed from

Lakatos differed from Popper in allowing not onlythe same scientists but also the same scientifictheories to join battle in the future, thoughdefenders of a defeated theory would carry aliability into the next engagement. Two points arestriking about the dialectical resolution to underdetermination.First, it draws attention to what economists callthe ‘opportunity costs’ of theory choice. In otherwords, when designing the test case for rivaltheories, scientists are forced to think about theorychoice as simultaneously involving the rejection ofone or more other theories. This situation naturallyinvites later reflections about whether the selectionof one theory over another had come at too high aprice. Kuhn’s view of science disallowed preciselythese considerations because a new paradigmrewrites its history to make it appear as though itsascendancy was an eventuality – not a deliberatechoice with consequences that may have beenunforeseen at the time, regretted now, yet stillreversible in the future.Second, the dialectical resolution shows thattheory choice is rarely, if ever, forced on scientists.Rather, scientists usually must themselves undertakethe regular contestation of theories. Here thefollowers of Kuhn and Popper were in agreement,but drew opposing conclusions. Kuhnians – much64

more than Kuhn himself – concluded that sciencehas rather little to do with theory choice, sinceincommensurable research programmes can beconducted in tandem indefinitely and, moreimportantly, individual scientists can give eachprogramme its due without feeling compelled todecide between them. Ian Hacking has perhapsmost aggressively pursued this line from thephilosophical side, arguing that science is ultimatelyabout the accumulation of phenomena thatremain robust in the face of passing theoretical fads.Recent historians and sociologists of science havecontinued the epistemic demotion of scientifictheories by casting them as flexible rhetorics thatcan be deployed to suit the occasion.For Popperians, this casual attitude towardtheory choice – or boundless theoretical pluralism –amounts to intellectual irresponsibility. At the veryleast, it fails to distinguish the scientist’s responsibilityfor testing the limits of theories from thetechnician’s capacity for indefinitely extending theapplication of theories.A favourite Popperian example here is the1,500-year life-span of Ptolemaic astronomy, whichpresupposed an Earth-centred universe. It lasted solong because it was treated largely as an off-theshelftool that could be used for astrological andnavigational purposes alongside other theories and65

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