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Fighting about frequency

A Correction to this article was published on 18 May 2021

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Abstract

Scientific disputes about how often different processes or patterns occur are relative frequency controversies. These controversies occur across the sciences. In some areas—especially biology—they are even the dominant mode of dispute. Yet they depart from the standard picture of what a scientific controversy is like. In fact, standard philosophical accounts of scientific controversies suggest that relative frequency controversies are irrational or lacking in epistemic value. This is because standard philosophical accounts of scientific controversies often assume that in order to be rational, a scientific controversy must (a) reach a resolution and (b) be about a scientifically interesting question. Relative frequency controversies rarely reach a resolution, however, and some scientists and philosophers are skeptical that these controversies center on scientifically interesting questions. In this paper, I provide a novel account of the epistemic contribution that relative frequency controversies make to science. I show that these controversies are rational in the sense of furthering the epistemic aims of the scientific communities in which they occur. They do this despite rarely reaching a resolution, and independent of whether the controversies are about scientifically interesting questions. This means that assumptions (a) and (b) about what is required for a controversy to be rational are wrong. Controversies do not need to reach a resolution in order to be rational. And they do not need to be about anything scientifically interesting in order to make valuable epistemic contributions to science.

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  1. This difference is nicely captured in Godfrey-Smith’s (2001) distinction between empirical adaptationism (an issue of frequency) and explanatory adaptationism (an issue of significance).

  2. Here and throughout the paper, I use the term “theory” in an informal sense—often synonymously with “hypothesis” or “mechanism.”

  3. Beatty (1997) defines the relative significance of a scientific theory as “roughly the proportion of phenomena within the domain that the theory correctly describes” (p. S432). He does not explicitly define the term “scientific controversy.” My own understanding of “scientific controversy” follows Ernest McMullin’s: “a publicly and persistently maintained dispute…concerned with a matter of belief…determinable by scientific means” (1987, p. 51).

  4. Though not the paradigmatic type of case, controversies about the relative roles of different causal factors in producing single-event phenomena (e.g. the extinction of dinosaurs) are, if not relative frequency controversies, quite similar to them in terms of their structure and dynamics.

  5. Though not uncontroversial: see Kelly (2003).

  6. There is a long history of philosophical debate on this point. I am particularly persuaded by Angela Potochnik’s (2015) defense of the idea that science’s epistemic aims are subject to change and expansion.

  7. Similar observations from other philosophers can be found in Millstein (2007), Skipper (2002, 2009) and Plutynski (2005). For an example of a relative frequency controversy that looks like it is in the process of being abandoned, see Bird et al.’s analysis of the controversy over sympatric speciation (2012, p. 176), as well as Via (2001) and Jiggins (2006).

  8. That relative frequency controversies often go unresolved is basically a consensus position in the scientific and philosophical literature on these controversies. Still, one might disagree with this claim, either because no one is in a position to report the actual proportion of resolved to unresolved controversies, or because eliminating some possible answers to the original relative frequency question seems like resolution of a sort. If you are not persuaded that these controversies are often unresolved, the important point for my argument is that their being resolved is independent of their being rational, as I discuss in Sect. 5.

  9. It's also a relative frequency controversy in its own right! For a discussion, see (Turner 2015).

  10. I intend the following discussion to be neutral among competing characterizations of scientific explanation.

  11. They can also be a mechanism by which new processes which can produce the phenomenon of interest are discovered. Mary Jane West-Eberhard (1984) did not propose the sensory bias model for sexual selection (in which mating preferences evolve from pre-existing sensory preferences) until 1984, years into the ongoing debate about good genes versus arbitrary choice, and peripatric and parapatric speciation were not recognized as mechanisms until the sympatric vs. allopatric controversy was well underway.

  12. The tendency to start with what Adrian Currie (2019) calls simple, “one-shot” hypotheses is it not necessarily an epistemic failing; rather, it could be an epistemically valuable strategic move that put scientists in a better position to investigate complex combinations of causal factors farther down the line.

  13. See Jiggins (2006) for a similar analysis of the development of the sympatric speciation controversy.

  14. Though it would be a mistake to take any of my claims in this paper as establishing the rationality of other kinds of unresolved, polarizing controversies! Whether the considerations that establish the rationality of relative frequency controversies apply to other kinds of cases would have to be investigated separately.

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Acknowledgements

Thanks to Colin Allen, Anjan Chakravartty, Michael Dietrich, Edouard Machery, Billy Monks, Aaron Novick, Quayshawn Spencer, Michael Weisberg, Daniel Wilkenfeld, 2 anonymous reviewers, and the audience at the 2019 Epistemology of Science Workshop at the Center for Philosophy of Science in Pittsburgh for their help in developing this article.

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Correspondence to Karen Kovaka.

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Kovaka, K. Fighting about frequency. Synthese 199, 7777–7797 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-021-03139-y

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Keywords

  • Scientific controversies
  • Epistemic rationality
  • Relative significance controversies
  • Relative frequency controversies
  • Social structure of science
  • Independence thesis