How to be rational about empirical success in ongoing science: The case of the quantum nose and its critics
Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 69:40-51 (2018)
AbstractEmpirical success is a central criterion for scientific decision-making. Yet its understanding in philosophical studies of science deserves renewed attention: Should philosophers think differently about the advancement of science when they deal with the uncertainty of outcome in ongoing research in comparison with historical episodes? This paper argues that normative appeals to empirical success in the evaluation of competing scientific explanations can result in unreliable conclusions, especially when we are looking at the changeability of direction in ongoing investigations. The challenges we encounter arise from the inherent dynamics of disciplinary and experimental objectives in research practice. In this paper we discuss how these dynamics inform the evaluation of empirical success by analyzing three of its requirements: data accommodation, instrumental reliability, and predictive power. We conclude that the assessment of empirical success in developing inquiry is set against the background of a model’s interactive success and prospective value in an experimental context. Our argument is exemplified by the analysis of an apparent controversy surrounding the model of a quantum nose in research on olfaction. Notably the public narrative of this controversy rests on a distorted perspective on measures of empirical success.
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