10

So, I'm teaching a course on Scientific Realism in the fall. I wanted to start off with a unit titled "What is a theory?" to make sure all of my students are on the same page and to prepare them for later topics.

The problem I'm having, however, is that most of the good articles I'm finding are fairly technical--- presupposing at least some familiarity with model theory. Since my students will be undergraduates, most of whom will have an intro logic course at best under their belts, I don't want to start off the course with something that will be far above their capabilities.

That being said, does anyone know of an article like this one by Frederick Suppe which might be a bit more approachable?

EDIT: There seems to be some confusion over what exactly I'm asking about. I'm not looking for an easy presentation of some particular scientific theory. Rather, I'm looking for a discussion of what a scientific theory is (e.g., a collection of partially interpreted sentences, a collection of models, etc.). See the linked Suppe article for an example. See the "About Theories" section of this wiki on Scientific Theory. I'm look for some free-standing academic articles ("pop science" books aren't really what I'm after) that explore those issues (syntactic vs. semantic construal of theories) without beating the students over the head with too much model theory.

FURTHER EDIT: Since two of the four answers currently posted are the answerer's own (or at least uncited) ideas, I feel the need to emphasize that this is a reference request. I'm looking for an article that fits the stated criteria. People's own ideas, while perhaps of value, do not help me at all here.

  • I'm having a look at the Wikipedia entry Scientific theory, and I'm wondering if you could, for clarification, perhaps indicate in which ways that fails your requirements (content-wise, presentation-wise, discussion-wise, otherwise). – user3164 Jul 8 '13 at 5:54
  • @Gugg The section "About Theories" is what I'm looking for. I wanted some free-standing articles that explore those issues (syntactic vs. semantic construal of theories) without beating the students over the head with too much model theory. I think I found something suitable in van Fraassen's The Scientific Image. Chapter 3 there seems to cover this territory without being overly technical. The only problem with the wiki is just that it isn't in depth enough. I'll leave this question open, though, in case someone knows of something better. – Dennis Jul 8 '13 at 6:46
  • I'm leaning, unless someone comes up with something better, to use Putnam's "What Theories Are Not" for a discussion of problems with the positivist's syntactic construal, and the van Fraassen for a nice survey. The Suppe that I linked to (and which the wiki links to) is really ideal, but too technical for my students I feel. – Dennis Jul 8 '13 at 6:53
  • 1
    In that case you perhaps may want to have a quickish look at Van Fraassen's Scientific Representation: "Models and theories as representations" (pp. 309-311, the references therein), and "Retreat (?) from The Scientific Image" (pp. 317-319) to check if there's something else around. – user3164 Jul 8 '13 at 7:08
  • @Gugg Thanks for those, I think they'll make nice supplemental pieces. – Dennis Jul 8 '13 at 16:12
4

Might I suggest:

  • 1
    Fantastic recommendation! Not sure how I missed this one, but pretty sure I'm gonna go with it. It gives a nice survey without being overwhelmingly mathematical (which is where my students are likely to be weaker). – Dennis Jul 11 '13 at 22:46
  • Glad I could help. It is slightly longer though. – noumenal Jul 11 '13 at 22:53
2

David Deutsch's The Fabric of Reality might be in the vein your looking for. He's makes the good case for Popper and a good against case against solipsism. It's mostly easy reading, but I think it kind of wanders and doesn't tie everything up nicely.

  • I'm not looking for an easy presentation of some particular scientific theory. Rather, I'm looking for a discussion of what a scientific theory is (e.g., a collection of partially interpreted sentences, a collection of models, etc.). See the linked Suppe article for an example. – Dennis Jul 8 '13 at 4:51
  • 1
    @Dennis - In the book Deutsch talks about how theories are related to explanations, what makes a good explanation or bad explanation, etc. – obelia Jul 8 '13 at 5:50
  • Yea, I guess I'm looking for something a bit more sophisticated than this "pop science". I want to present the material in the Suppe article, but without scaring the students with too much model theory. My comment to my question above says a bit more, including that I may have found what I'm looking for. Also, I added a comma for a trivial edit so I could get rid of my downvote--- that was a bit hasty and undeserved. – Dennis Jul 8 '13 at 6:48
2

In the introductory course I took we started with an article by Ruse: 'Creation Science is not Science.

He talks about what a scientific theory really is and presupposes no technical stuffs and stays on a very general level. It may be too broad, though. Here is a link to the article: http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/688792?uid=2&uid=4&sid=21102441601581

  • 1
    It's a good article, but it doesn't cover quite the ground that I'm looking for. That and Lakatos's "Science and Pseudoscience" are both great pieces on what should count as science. – Dennis Jul 8 '13 at 20:19
-3

Might I suggest the problem would be best described with an example? The only theory (to my knowledge) that is accepted as scientific fact and has literally decided the fate of lives - all over the world.

Fingerprints! :)

It is not commonly thought of, but the "scientific fact " that every person on the planet has individual and indentifyingly different and seperate finger prints from every other person - is indeed scientific theory that is accepted as a scientific principle.

But this has NEVER been tested (proven).
Why? Until 8,200,000,000+ people can be printed and compared there will only be proof of this theory based on the (so far) zero incidence of a repeated identical print on a different person.

So this theory can become fact and therefore an acepted scientific principle only through two methods:

  • Find a duplicate print (the theory would then be disproven and thus fingerprints would no longer be reliable identification of one individual from another)
  • Print every person in the world and discover NO duplicates

ONLY THEN.... after two centuries will the theory of fingerprints become a scientific principal - in truth - again, we accept it to be true - a fact or principle due to no contradictory evidence being available.

The same principle is what resulted in so much trouble for Gallileo, when - with new evidence - suggested that the Earth was NOT the centre of the Solar System, but that the Sun was... and he nearly lost his life for herasy at the time!

Hope this helps and is at a level that will be easy for your target to grasp the concept of.

BTW: I'll assume an example of a proven theory will be easy enough for you to supply - my personal favourite is the lowering of the boiling point of water with increased altitude and air-pressure - and easy as a practical demonstration even as little as 500 mtr (1,500') aboce sea level.

Best Regards

Craig

  • 1
    I'm not looking for an easy presentation of some particular scientific theory. Rather, I'm looking for a discussion of what a scientific theory is (e.g., a collection of partially interpreted sentences, a collection of models, etc.). See the linked Suppe article for an example. – Dennis Jul 8 '13 at 15:31
  • Also, many of my students are some manner of science major, so are acquainted with no shortage of examples. I'm looking for a more theoretical perspective. – Dennis Jul 8 '13 at 15:52
  • 1
    "8,200,000,000+"? – user3164 Jul 8 '13 at 16:40
  • 2
    This answer is particularly unhelpful as it sets up unreasonable demands of evidence, ignores probabilistic reasoning, inference, extra evidence, etc. etc.. "Tested" and "proven" are not at all the same. We also have extensive evidence that if fingerprints are identical they are randomly so based upon the differences observed indentical twins (among other things). This might be useful to illustrate the difference between a scientific theory and a proof, but I doubt even that. – Rex Kerr Jul 8 '13 at 16:50

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.