7.0185 Science (1/40)

Tue, 14 Sep 1993 17:25:21 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 7, No. 0185. Tuesday, 14 Sep 1993.

Date: Mon, 13 Sep 1993 22:39:32 -0500 (EDT)
From: mccarty@epas.utoronto.ca (W. McCarty)
Subject: science

A characteristic story of naive (dogmatic) falsificationism that should
be just the thing for beginning of term:

"The story is about an imaginary case of planetary misbehaviour. A
physicist of the pre-Einsteinian era takes Newton's mechanics and his law
of gravitation (N), the accepted initial conditions, I, and calculates, with
their help, the path of a newly discovered small planet, p. But the planet
deviates from the calculated path. Does our Newtonian physicist consider
that the deviation was forbidden by Newton's theory and therefore that,
once established, it refutes the theory N? No. He suggests that there must
be a hitherto unknown planet p' which perturbs the path of p. He calcu-
lates the mass, orbit, etc., of this hypothetical planet and then asks
an experimental astronomer to test his hypothesis. The planet p' is so small
that even the biggest available telescopes cannot possibly observe it:
the experimental astronomer applies for a research grant to build yet a
bigger one. In three years' time the new telescope is ready. Were
the unknown planet p' to be discovered, it would be hailed as a new
victory of Newtonian science. But it is not. Does our scientist abandon
Newton's theory and his idea of the perturbing planet? No. He suggests
that a cloud of cosmic dust hides the planet from us. He calculates the
location and properties of this cloud and asks for a research grant to
send up a satellite to test his calculations. Were the satellite's
instruments (possibly new ones, based on a little-tested theory) to
record the existence of the conjectural cloud, the result would be
hailed as an outstanding victory for Newtonian science. But the cloud
is not found. Does our scientist abandon Newton's theory, together
with the idea of the perturbing planet and the idea of the cloud
which hides it? No. He suggests that there is some magnetic field
in that region of the universe which disturbed the instruments of
the satellite. A new satellite is sent up. Were the magnetic field to be
found, Newtonians would celebrate a sensational victory. But it is not.
Is this regarded as a refutation of Newtonian science? No. Either yet
another ingenious auxiliary hypothesis is proposed or . . . the
whole story is buried in the dusty volumes of periodicals and the
story never mentioned again."

Imre Lakatos, "Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific
Research Programmes," in _Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge",
ed. Imre Lakatos and Alan Musgrave (Cambridge, 1970): 100-1.