2286 induction and observation in science

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induction and
observation in science

Andrew Tudor

One of the most persistent commonsense
accounts of science is that in which scientists
are understood systematically to assemble obser
vations and arrive at reliable generalizations
based upon them. Sometimes, wrongly, this
simple inductive empiricist view is laid at the
door of Francis Bacon (15611626) and dubbed
Baconian inductivism. In fact, Bacons views
were considerably more complex than this, but
the hare that he set running inductive infer
ence as the heart of scientific method has
subsequently been pursued by all manner of
hounds. The Scottish Enlightenment philoso
pher David Hume (171176) was preeminent
among the early pursuers, and to this day
Humes problem continues to preoccupy
philosophy of science. In the mid twentieth cen
tury, there was a period when the seemingly
more powerful hypothetico deductive model
of scientific inquiry appeared to have run induc
tivism and Humes problem to exhaustion.
However, it rapidly became apparent that the
issues surrounding inductive inference had a
peculiar capacity to reemerge from the coverts
of deductive certainty, not least where the nat
ure of observation itself was questioned. Into the
space thus created have hastened newer, more
relativistic epistemologies and, in full cry, the
sociology of science.
Although Bacon was by no means a nave
inductivist, he did insist on the necessity of
ridding the mind of certain kinds of preconcep
tions when examining the facts, so as to better
discover the true workings of natural phenom
ena. In effect, then, the inferential process
moved from neutral observation to generaliza
tion unencumbered by misleading beliefs likely
to obstruct proper knowledge. In its period this
was a bold formulation, and one crucial to the
subsequent development of natural philosophy
into modern science. But it immediately raised
difficulties for those eager to underwrite the
legitimacy of scientific method in inductive
terms. For while deductive reasoning had a
lengthy logical pedigree, inductive inference
was to prove far more slippery.
It was David Hume who presented the cen
tral problem of inductivism in its most influen
tial form. In essence, the argument is simple:
that however many instances we may find of a
specific phenomenon, this gives us no reason in
logic to expect that observed pattern to continue
in the future. In other words, we have no justi
fication for making any reliable inference from
past evidence. Nor, of course, can we lay claim
to probabilistic justification in as much as at the
heart of the problem is the very unpredictability
of the future in relation to past experience. The
future will hold surprises. And against those
who suggest, more pragmatically, that our past
successes with this kind of inductive inference
should lead us to expect success in the future,
Hume levels the charge of circularity: attempt
ing to justify inductive inference by inductively
inferring future success from past instances of
inductive inference itself.
Unsurprisingly, then, the difficulties conse
quent upon accepting inductive inference as the
distinguishing feature of scientific method gave
way by the mid twentieth century to more
deductively inclined models of science. Rather
than seeing science as founded on generaliza
tions from data, these approaches afforded
greater emphasis to the relative autonomy of
theory. So, for example, variants of the hypothe
tico deductive model were little concerned with
the grounds on which we actually arrived at our
theories and generalizations. Their interest lay,
rather, with deducing predictive hypotheses
from theory which could then be subjected to
(experimental) test. In strict versions for
example, Popperian falsificationism the test
could only falsify and not confirm (Humes pro
blem again). But this, too, presented problems.
Science clearly did not proceed on the basis
of rigid, deductive tenets (let alone falsification
ist ones), and at the heart of any process of