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Using History as Evidence in Philosophy of Science: A Methodological Critique

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Abstract

This article offers a critical review of past attempts and possible methods to test philosophical models of science against evidence from history of science. Drawing on methodological debates in social science, I distinguish between quantitative and qualitative approaches. I show that both have their uses in history and philosophy of science, but that many writers in this domain have misunderstood and misapplied these approaches, and especially the method of case studies. To test scientific realism, for example, quantitative methods are more effective than case studies. I suggest that greater methodological clarity would enable the project of integrated history and philosophy of science to make renewed progress.

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... The history and philosophy of science (HPS) is a noteworthy exception to this claim, with a sustained discussion of the methodology of HPS that reaches back at least toLakatos (1971) and up to today (e.g.,Kinzel 2015;Scholl and Räz 2016;McAllister 2018;Schickore 2018). This literature differs from the current project in being focused on science as a historical phenomenon, while we focus on contemporary social systems. ...
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This article elaborates a conceptual framework to systematize the epistemic evaluation of social systems. This framework can be used to structure an evaluation or to characterize and assess existing ones. The article then uses the framework to assess four representative evaluations of think tanks. This meta-evaluation exemplifies how the framework can play its structuring role. It also leads us to general conclusions about the existing evaluations of think tanks. Most importantly, by focusing on the organizational level, existing evaluations miss factors that are situated at the network and ecosystemic levels and that significantly determine how well think tanks serve society in producing and disseminating knowledge relevant to public policy. This conclusion suggests the need for epistemic evaluations of think tank ecosystems.
... 2016). Even scholars who are reserved about their probative value, however, usually grant case studies a heuristic (Chang 2011), illustrative and debate-structuring (Currie 2015a), and insight-yielding (Schickore 2011;McAllister 2017) role. On a more positive side, Burian (2001) stated that "case studies can produce findings that cannot be gotten from more abstract 'armchair' philosophical work" and Kinzel (2016) stressed the importance of recalcitrant cases for forcing belief revision. ...
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Several scholars observed that narratives about the human past are evaluated comparatively. Few attempts have been made, however, to explore how such evaluations are actually done. Here I look at a lengthy “contest” among several historiographic narratives, all constructed to make sense of another one—the biblical story of the conquest of Canaan. I conclude that the preference of such narratives can be construed as a rational choice. In particular, an easily comprehensible and emotionally evocative narrative will give way to a complex and mundane one, when the latter provides a more coherent account of the consensually accepted body of evidence. This points to a fundamental difference between historiographic narratives and fiction, contrary to some influential opinions in the philosophy of historiography. Such historiographic narratives have similarities with hypotheses and narrative explanations in natural science.
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We have previously argued that historical cases must be rendered canonical before they can plausibly serve as evidence for philosophical claims, where canonicity is established through a process of negotiation among historians and philosophers of science (Bolinska and Martin, 2020). Here, we extend this proposal by exploring how that negotiation might take place in practice. The working stock of historical examples that philosophers tend to employ has long been established informally, and, as a result, somewhat haphazardly. The composition of the historical canon of philosophy of science is therefore path dependent, and cases often become stock examples for reasons tangential to their appropriateness for the purposes at hand. We show how the lack of rigor around the canonization of case studies has muddied the waters in selected philosophical debates. This, in turn, lays the groundwork for proposing ways in which they can be improved.
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In this book, I defend the present-centered approach in historiography of science (i.e. study of the history of science), build an account for causal explanations in historiography of science, and show the fruitfulness of the approach and account in when we attempt to understand science. The present-centered approach defines historiography of science as a field that studies the developments that led to the present science. I argue that the choice of the targets of studies in historiography of science should be directly connected to our values and preferences in an intersubjective process. The main advantage of this approach is that it gives a clear motivation for historiography of science and avoids or solves stubborn conceptual and practical problems within the field. The account of causal explanations is built on the notions of counterfactual scenarios and contrastive question-answer pairs. I argue that if and only if we track down patterns of counterfactual dependencies, can we understand history. Moreover, I define the notions of historical explanation, explanatory competition, explanatory depth, and explanatory resources. Finally, I analyze the existing historiography of science with the framework built in the previous chapter, and I show that this framework clarifies many first-order (i.e. concerning the history of science) and meta-level issues (i.e. concerning the nature of science in general) that historians and philosophers tackle. As an illustration of the philosophical power of the framework, I explicate the notion of local explanation and analyze the question of whether the developments of science were necessary or contingent.
Article
There is an ongoing methodological debate in Philosophy of Science concerning the use of case studies as evidence for and/or against theories about science. In this paper, I aim to make a contribution to this debate by taking an empirical approach. I present the results of a systematic survey of the PhilSci-Archive, which suggest that a sizeable proportion of papers in Philosophy of Science contain appeals to case studies, as indicated by the occurrence of the indicator words “case study” and/or “case studies.” These results are confirmed by data mined from the JSTOR database on research articles published in leading journals in the field: Philosophy of Science, the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science (BJPS), and the Journal for General Philosophy of Science (JGPS), as well as the Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association (PSA). The data also show upward trends in appeals to case studies in articles published in Philosophy of Science, the BJPS, and the JGPS. The empirical work I have done for this paper provides philosophers of science who are wary of the use of case studies as evidence for and/or against theories about science with a way to do Philosophy of Science that is informed by data rather than case studies.
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