I have seen a great number of individuals who take a step from "There is overwhelming evidence to suggest theory X is true" to "Theory X is true." (I think I misworded the former sentence intentionally to match the vernacular used, and should instead end with "theory X will not be falsified," but I'm more concerned with the transition between the two unless there's a reason for the first sentence's issues to dominate.)

As best as I understand the philosophy of science, this step is not considered canon, and yet I find a large number of individuals not only taking that step, but being confused as to anyone would ever consider not taking that step. Many will even aggressively defend their ability to take that step without criticism or even questioning. The result is a great deal of strife on politically charged issues where a large number of individuals claiming to speak for science make claims that I am not convinced are actually defensible within the bounds of science.

Since so many individuals take this step, I presume it has a name within the philosophy of science, so I'm curious what it might be called (permitting me to reference the works of others in my debates). I'd also like to know how well that implication is accepted within members of the scientific community, especially those who explore the philosophy of science.

  • 2
    In some cases it is just a linguistic shortcut -- "X is true" as a quick way of saying "X seems to be consistent with what we've observed up to now, so we'll use it as a basis for inferences going forward"; the latter being my paraphrasing of how some scientists might answer the question "what do you mean by saying X is true?". – Dave Nov 17 '15 at 15:50
  • I would state that this is between Popper and Kuhn: In modern natural sciences, having an alpha error of 1/10000 or below in three independent experiments states an empirical "truth" if memory serves. The positivist dispute has been about that. Emprical scepticism (in tradition of Hume) is my best guess, but as I am not sure, this is only a comment. – Philip Klöcking Nov 17 '15 at 16:18
  • @Dave I had always treated it as a linguistic shortcut, as you suggest. However, as of late, I have been interacting with people who would rather spend an hour defending why their use of "true" is more than just a linguistic shortcut than take 5 minutes to go one level deeper into the science and use more precise terminology to come to a consensus. I admit, I am baffled by the behavior. – Cort Ammon Nov 17 '15 at 16:35
  • The name is abduction, better known as inference to the best explanation plato.stanford.edu/entries/abduction – Conifold Nov 17 '15 at 23:25

The scientific process never generates anything that "will not be falsified". However small the odds, you always move forward on the condition that any of your premises might prove false.

So strictly taken, this is fallacious. But to insist it matters would cripple the process of normal science. To quibble with this is simply not productive, and to insist upon more precise handling of the language puts one outside "the game" in the sense of Wittgenstein.

"The game" of science involves knowing what would change one's mind, not avoiding the risk of being wrong. Falsifiability as a principle is meant to challenge the imagination of the community to make sure it is not accepting ritualistic nonsense, rather than addressing the specific problem with the progress of a given programme.

As many people in the generation after Popper (Kuhn, Lakatos, Toulmin, Feyerabend) have pointed out, based on solid historical fact, actual literal falsification is often not enough of a reason to reject a theory, when all the alternatives are too weak to replace it.

  • Thank you for the answer! Is there any definitive work by Wittgenstein which would be a good place to start for that topic? I find it fascinating that "the game" of knowing what would change one's mind starts with a fallacy that insists something is true when there was doubt before. It feels like there's more to dive into there. – Cort Ammon Nov 17 '15 at 17:25
  • Unfortunately, Wittgenstein failed to publish, so you have to lift the 'feeling' of exactly what a language game is from the Philosophical Investigations or the Blue and Brown Books edited by others and published after his death. But elaboration of this notion of science as a 'game' in this sense can be found in the arguments of the four folks listed, especially the arguments between Lakatos and Feyerabend. – jobermark Nov 17 '15 at 17:42
  • The driving force is Kuhn's notion of "normal science", that most of science represents putting aside issues of interpretation and solving puzzles. In that 'mode' you just follow vague rules about "p-values and parsimony" in deciding what is to be considered true, with the occasional check that your belief system is not converging into a meaningless ritual. And in between, one addresses deeper issues. Popper suggested a much more direct ongoing confrontation, but those in the next generation suggested that could not actually work for historical reasons. – jobermark Nov 17 '15 at 17:50

Starting from Kuhn's idea that what constitutes good science is a social construct and based on what I can see from the dubious medical and health sciences literature:

"There is overwhelming evidence to suggest theory X is true"

Means: "We have enough statistical data to start writing legislation and selling products based on this theory, but we don't have any causal mechanism that can explain it and there is a small possibility that we are wrong since we have no way of falsifying our theory so far" Whereas

"Theory X is true."

Means: "Our theory provides a causal mechanism for the data, and we are able to replicate some of it's results in controlled experimental settings (i.e. it is falsifiable in the traditional sense)"

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