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Discarded theories: the role of changing interests

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I take another look at the history of science and offer some fresh insights into why the history of science is filled with discarded theories. I argue that the history of science is just as we should expect it to be, given the following two facts about science: (i) theories are always only partial representations of the world, and (ii) almost inevitably scientists will be led to investigate phenomena that the accepted theory is not fit to account for. Together these facts suggest that most scientific theories are apt to be discarded sometime, superseded by new theories that better serve scientists’ new research interests. Consequently, it is reasonable to expect that many of the theories we currently accept, despite their many impressive successes, will be discarded sometime in the future. But I also argue that discarded theories are not always aptly characterized as a sign of failure or as a sign of some sort of shortcoming with science. Theories are discarded because scientists are making advances in their pursuit of knowledge. Thus, discarded theories are often a sign of the good health of science. Scientists are responding to their changing research interests.

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  1. 1.

    Obviously different types of realists construe the success of science in different ways. Structural realists merely maintain that our knowledge of the structure of reality is increasing (see Worrall 1989).

  2. 2.

    In his later writings, Thomas Kuhn suggests that changes of theory involve taxonomic or lexical changes. As a result, the various things that were grouped together in the theory that is discarded, may no longer be grouped together in the successor theory (see, especially, Kuhn 1991/2000, pp. 91–94).

  3. 3.

    There is not just one Pessimistic Induction. Rather there are a variety of different arguments that are called “Pessimistic Inductions” discussed in the literature (see Wray 2015).

  4. 4.

    There are alternative strategies for reducing the inductive base upon which the Pessimistic Induction rests. Lange (2002), for example, suggests that our concern should not be with the number of theories that have been discarded in the past. Rather, he suggests that some specific fields may have a higher turnover rate than other fields, and we do not want to judge the latter fields on the basis of the failures in the former fields.

  5. 5.

    Poincaré (1913/2001) discusses a version of this view in The Value of Science. He refers to it as “the scientific conception.” According to the scientific conception “every law is only a statement, imperfect and provisional, but it must one day be replaced by another, a superior law, of which it is only a crude image” (339).

  6. 6.

    Poincaré also suggests that some gains are never lost (see 1905/2001, pp. 122–123). Specifically Poincaré claims that even through an episode of radical theory change “the differential equations are always true, they may always be integrated by the same methods, and the results of this integration still preserve their value” (pp. 122–123). Kuhn also believes that some gains are preserved through radical theory change. “Laws...to the extent that they are purely empirical, enter science as net additions to knowledge and are never thereafter entirely displaced” (Kuhn 1976/1977, p. 19). Theories, Kuhn believes, are a different matter (see 1976/1977, p. 19).

  7. 7.

    The principal type of success that figures in the discussions of the Pessimistic Induction is predictive success. Realists tend to give predictions of novel phenomena extra weight or consideration. See, for example, Musgrave (1988) and Leplin (1997).

  8. 8.

    I have benefited from Stathis Psillos’ (1999, p. 263) analysis of Tichý’s and Miller’s papers. Larry Laudan has also objected to the realists’ appeal to the notion of approximate truth (see Laudan 1984, pp. 30, 31). Laudan notes that “few...have defined what it means for a statement or theory to be ‘approximately true”’ (Laudan 1984, p. 30). Incidentally, some realists recognize the difficulties with operationalizing the notion of relative closeness to the truth, but insist that we can rely on a common sense understanding of what “relative closeness to the truth” means in judgments of competing theories (see, for example, Psillos 1999, pp. 276–279; and Chalmers 2013, pp. 260–264). Attempts to revive the notion of increasing verisimilitude in an effort to explain scientific progress continue (see, for example, Niiniluoto 1999, 2014). Darrell Rowbottom, though, argues that “central aspects of scientific progress do not involve science’s theories increasing in verisimilitude” (Rowbottom 2015, p. 104). Rowbottom claims that even false beliefs can promote progress.

  9. 9.

    Chakravartty (2007) provides a clear account of the difference between abstractions and idealizations. “An abstract theory is one that results when only some of the potentially many relevant factors present in a target system are taken into account” (Chakravartty 2007, p. 221). On the other hand, “an idealized theory is one that results when one or more factors is simplified... so as to represent a system in a way it could not be” (221). My concern will be with abstractions as they make our theories partial, accounted for some features of the world but not others.

  10. 10.

    Popper discusses the evolutionary basis of the way animals divide their environments. A hungry animal discerns between food and non-food, an animal being pursued by a predator discerns between hiding places and escapes routes (see Popper 1957/2002, p. 61). Popper’s examples are drawn from D. Katz’s Animals and Men. Clearly, the layperson is more like an animal than a scientist in this respect.

  11. 11.

    Perhaps the exception here is those enormous research teams that virtually employ most of the scientists working in a field. When such a research team changes its interests, the field as a whole changes its interests; the field and the team are co-extensive. This, though, is probably rare, and may only happen in certain areas of physics.

  12. 12.

    The Copernican Revolution in astronomy is exceptional in this respect. There were, as many know, three well developed alternative theories competing for the allegiance of European astronomers around 1600: the Copernican theory, the late Renaissance version of the Ptolemaic theory, and Tycho Brahe’s theory. There, were, in addition, other competitors, including a version of Brahe’s theory that included the Earth rotating on its axis daily, and the so-called “Egyptian theory,” which was Earth-centered, but had Mercury and Venus, but not the other planets, orbiting the Sun as the Sun orbits the Earth. More often, scientists are faced with a choice between just two competing theories.

  13. 13.

    One might think that I am presenting a false dilemma here by suggesting that a theory is discarded either (i) because, as is typically suggested, it are discovered to be false, or (ii) because, as I suggest, the theory no longer serves the interests of scientists. This is not so. First, scientists might discover that a theory is both false and no longer serves their interests. Second, there might be other reasons as well that lead scientists to discard a theory. I thank one of the referees for Synthese for drawing this concern to my attention.

  14. 14.

    There are affinities between the view I present here, and Carnap’s view in “Empiricism, Semantics, and Ontology.” Carnap claims that the choice of a language or theory is a pragmatic choice. “The acceptance [of a language or theory] cannot be judged as being true or false because it is not an assertion. It can only be judged as being more or less expedient, fruitful, conducive to the aims for which the language is intended” (Carnap 1950, p. 31). Note the central role that he attributes to the aims of the people adopting the language or theory.

  15. 15.

    Indeed, some of the variables scientists must work with are determined by funding agencies. For example, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the United States might fund a grant program for research on diabetes among African Americans. Clearly, this puts some constraints on the variables that need to be accounted for. But there is much more that needs to be determined, and this is left to the discretion of the scientists.


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I thank Lori Nash, Kristina Rolin, Moti Mizrahi, and Darrell Rowbottom for helpful comments on earlier drafts. I thank Darrell and Jamin Asay for inviting me to participate in the conference at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, on “Science: The Real Thing?” I deeply regret that I was unable to attend the conference. I thank the referees for Synthese and the editor for this special issue, Darrell Rowbottom, for their critical and constructive feedback on an earlier draft. The comments from the referees were, without a doubt, some of the most insightful and useful comments I have ever received from referees. The final revisions on the paper were made while I was a Visiting Scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, while on sabbatical leave. I thank MIT for hosting me and providing an environment conducive to realizing my research goals. I thank the State University of New York, Oswego, for supporting my sabbatical leave.

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Correspondence to K. Brad Wray.

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Wray, K.B. Discarded theories: the role of changing interests. Synthese 196, 553–569 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-016-1058-4

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