CAN WE TRUST SCIENCE? - Introduction to Philosophy of Science Unit 5: Scientific Realism
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I thought I'd (at least temporarily) give this one a provocative title for those who fell asleep somewhere between the intro and all that induction stuff. Yes, this list's all about whether we ought to accept all those whacky or not-so-whacky theories scientists give us - and what that even means in the first place. Now that we have down all the main theories about what science is like, this topic - scientific realism - is the natural thing to cover next.

READINGS
Theory and Reality Ch.12 (Chs.8 and 9 optional)
RPS selection 34: Bas van Fraassen, "Constructive Empiricism"; selection 35: Paul Churchland, "The Anti-Realist Epistemology of van Fraassen's The Scientific Image"; selection 36: Ian Hacking, "Experimentation and Scientific Realism"; selection 38: James Robert Brown, "Explaining the Success of Science"

SUBSCRIPTION THREAD FOR THIS SERIES
http://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/494877/introduction-to-t...

Please give the midterm poll in the link above a try - I'll be posting the answers sometime in the next few days or so. I'll also perhaps make a short poll to guage interest in the final unit - I'm still not sure whether I will do it or not.
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1. Board Game: Reality [Average Rating:0.00 Unranked]
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The Basic Issues

A number of issues get discussed under the heading of "scientific realism":
 Do scientific theories describe a largely mind-independent world?
 Does science aim at accurate theories - including accuracy about unobservable aspects of reality?
 Are scientific theories accurate at all - in particular, accurate about unobservable aspects of reality?

Minimal Scientific Realism

Godfrey-Smith and certain others use the term "scientific realism" to name a view that takes a position on the first two questions only
In this class, we’ll call this minimal scientific realism to distinguish it from a version that takes a position on all three questions

Common-sense Realism Naturalized:
We all inhabit a common reality, which has a structure that exists independently of what people think and say about it, except insofar as reality is comprised of thoughts, theories, and other symbols in ways that might be uncovered by science

Minimal Scientific Realism
Godfrey-Smith’s definition:
 1. Common-sense realism naturalized
 2. One actual and reasonable aim of science is to give us accurate representations of what reality is like. This project includes giving us accurate representations of aspects of reality that are unobservable

Note that part 1 requires there to be an external world that is largely independent of our minds and our theories
Note that part 2 requires that accuracy be one aim of science, not the only one

We will now turn to views that reject one or more pieces of this view
Views that reject scientific realism are versions of "anti-realism"
 
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Idealism

Rejecting part 1, idealism is one of the oldest anti-realist views
Idealism is the view that reality itself is mental or dependent on the mental in a particularly strong sense
It rejects the part of common-sense realism naturalized that requires reality to be at least partly independent of our minds

Constructionism

Classical idealism is not the biggest view right now, however, that rejects part 1
Certain people follow Radical Kuhn in thinking that the world I live in is partly constructed by my mind or my theories
Prior to Kuhn, Nelson Goodman was a famous advocate of this position

Kant famously held something sort of like the following (his "transcendental idealism"):
 There really is a world independent of us, but our only access to it is indirect through the world as it appears to us
 This world that we have access to is a result of the influence on us of the world independent of us, plus the activity of our minds in constructing the world based on that influence

Many modern "constructionists", as we may call them, follow Kant here
But whereas Kant held that our world-constructing mental activities together construct a single world we all live in, many modern constructionists hold that people with different concepts or theories construct and live in different worlds
 
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Constructionism

In sociology, particularly in the sociology of science (as well as in certain areas of anthropology, other sciences, literature, etc.), Kuhn and other related figures have had a profound impact
Some sociologists have embraced Kuhn’s ideas of radical incommensurability between theories or paradigms
Among these, many seem to embrace Radical Kuhn
 Certain sociologists such as Bruno Latour and Steven Shapin lead the way here
 Certain literary theorists such as Stanley Fish hold similar positions

Most of these sociologists and others outside philosophy don’t go much further than Kuhn in arguing for their constructionism
But as we saw, Radical Kuhn’s reasoning in favor of his constructionism was not good
So it looks like many non-philosophers, including some social scientists and literary theorists, hold onto constructionism without much reason

One example is where Shapin and others have claimed that when a scientific dispute is decided and one side wins, this makes the winner the correct one - new facts are thereby literally added to the world
(Compare Kuhn on the shift in worlds accompanying a shift in paradigms)
Problem: From the fact that one side wins in a dispute, all that unproblematically follows is that one side ends up being the one that everyone believes to be true
It doesn’t follow that it is the one that is in fact true
 
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Epistemic Relativism

Related to constructionism, some sociologists, influenced by more radical readings of Kuhn, have become relativists about justification
 Different communities or people believe in different standards for the justification of beliefs or theories and not one of them is objectively correct or incorrect - which standards apply is completely relative

One argument Latour and others have given for this relativism and other kinds of skepticism regarding science is the apparent influence of apparently nonscientific, non-rational social, political, and personal considerations in interactions between scientists
However, neither relativism nor skepticism about science follows

For one thing, even if this social influence exists, it has not been shown that the influence is sufficient to have made a difference in scientific outcomes
Even if it did make a huge difference, remember that many philosophers of science see science as the activity of a community - one which can be rational and objective even if the individual scientists are not
 
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Diagnosing Constructionism

Why have some social scientists and literary theorists embraced constructionism?
Some of it is simply a confusion of theory and belief with reality - a kind of example of the sort of thing sometimes called the "use/mention confusion", which even very smart people are quite prone to make

For instance, many non-philosophers do not carefully distinguish between theories and what the theories are about
No careful distinction is made between the social construction of theories and the construction of facts or the world
The first is unproblematic, the second is not

As pointed out by Longino, another confusion arises from the way the word "knowledge" gets used
Ordinarily, "knowledge" is a success word - if someone knows that p, then p must really be the case
Sometimes, though, we might say something like:
 Before the trial I knew he was guilty, now I’m not so sure

Here, we might put "knew" in quotes and write it as
 I "knew" he was guilty
The idea here is that I didn’t really know that he was guilty, but I sure thought I did
So sometimes we say "he knows" when what we really mean is "he thinks he
knows"

Many sociologists, along these lines, tend to use "knowledge" to mean what is believed to be knowledge
However, given this usage and the fact that "knowledge" as ordinarily used is a success term, it is no wonder some people get confused:
 People at one time knew the earth was flat, then they knew it was round
--- This must mean the facts changed!
 
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Diagnosing Constructionism

Constructionism also seems to be an overreaction to the "Bad View"
The Bad View holds that the mind is a passive, blank slate on which reality forces a single, correct view in an objective, immediate way
Everyone agrees this view is false, but constructionists go to the opposite extreme to avoid it

In rejecting the idea that the world completely determines our theories of it, constructionists reverse the idea and hold that our theories of the world completely determine it
This completely ignores any middle ground and non-philosophers who try to hold a middle ground are often criticized for being too close to the Bad View

Problems

Godfrey-Smith: Constructionists seem to in large part ignore the role of the real world in influencing science and in constraining scientific beliefs
They largely ignore its role in determining the reliability of scientific procedures and the effect this has on science
 
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Instrumentalism

Anti-realism as a distinct movement against scientific realism really got going in the 1800s with debates over the reality of atoms
The skeptics, though they had come to accept atomic theory as the best current theory, adopted a kind of instrumentalism about the theory

Instrumentalism rejects the idea that science aims at accurate representations, particularly of unobservable aspects of reality
Perhaps it does aim at accurate representations when it comes to those which are purely about observable entities
But not with more theoretical representations

According to instrumentalism, representations that purportedly deal with theoretical entities are in fact neither true nor false - neither accurate nor inaccurate
Such "representations" are not meant to represent anything at all
They are merely useful tools for making predictions about observations

Problems:
 Do chairs, cats, etc. count as theoretical entities? If so, instrumentalism would imply that statements about these are neither true nor false but merely tools for making predictions about what we observe
 Making the theoretical/observational distinction in vocabulary still has the same problems mentioned in Unit 4
 Mere predictive tools would not aid understanding the world any better

Logical Positivism

The logical positivists also rejected condition 2 of minimal scientific realism
Unlike the instrumentalists, they allowed that theories with theoretical terms could be true or false
But they denied that these were really about unobservable aspects of reality
Instead, these theories were connected to experience by bridge laws
 
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Optimistic Scientific Realism

Remember our three questions:
 Do scientific theories describe a largely mindindependent world?
 Does science aim at accurate theories - including accuracy about unobservable aspects of reality?
 Are scientific theories accurate at all - in particular, accurate about unobservable aspects of reality?

Minimal scientific realism gives an answer to the first two questions, but leaves it open how we answer the third
Optimistic scientific realism, as I will call it, is a view that also often gets called "scientific realism" and which takes a stand on all three issues

Here’s the definition:
 1. Minimal scientific realism
 2. Many of our scientific theories are fairly accurate about the world, including about unobservable aspects of the world. Many of our terms which purport to refer to unobservable entities in fact succeed in making such reference

Note first that condition 1 requires that minimal scientific realism be true
Anyone who rejects any part of minimal scientific realism will also thereby reject optimistic scientific realism

Optimistic scientific realism is just minimal scientific realism plus a kind of optimism about our current theories and scientific picture of the world
One can reject optimistic scientific realism, then, by rejecting minimal scientific realism
One can also reject it by either being pessimistic about our current theories or at least those which deal with the unobservable
One could also reject it by simply being agnostic about such theories
 
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Constructive Empiricism

Van Fraassen subscribes to a form of antirealism he calls constructive empiricism
Van Fraassen rejects both minimal scientific realism and optimism about our current theories
Neither explanation nor accuracy (at least about unobservables) are aims of science

Unlike constructionists, van Fraassen doesn’t think we construct reality
Unlike instrumentalists, van Fraassen thinks theories can be true or false even when about unobservable entities
Unlike the positivists, van Fraassen thinks theories that purport to be about unobservable entities, if true, really are about them and not just observables

Van Fraassen thinks it a good option to remain agnostic about whether scientific theories accurately describe the unobservable world
This includes remaining agnostic as to whether unobservable theoretical entities such as electrons exist

What science aims at, instead, is accuracy about observables - that is, to make all correct observable predictions, etc.
A theory that is entirely accurate about the observable aspects of reality is empirically adequate
Note that empirical adequacy includes all observable phenomena, including those not yet investigated
 
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Constructive Empiricism

Something counts as observable not simply if I am currently in a position to observe it
It is observable if it is the sort of thing that can be observed with our unaided sense organs
Science tells us which things human senses can observe and which not

A theory may, in addition to being empirically adequate, end up being accurate about the unobservable aspects of reality
But this is of no interest to science or to us - we cannot know the theory is accurate in this way, even if it is

Van Fraassen: A well-established theory should not be believed but rather should be accepted
In van Fraassen’s sense, to accept a theory is to
 (1) believe (provisionally) that the theory is empirically adequate, and to
 (2) use the concepts the theory provides when thinking about further problems and when trying to extend and refine the theory

When a theory is well-established, then, the proper response is to think it is empirically adequate and treat it as if it were true for scientific purposes
Theories that are about unobservable aspects of reality, then, get treated as empirically useful fictions that scientists pretend are true in order to go about doing science
 
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Observables and Unobservables

In Unit 4, we saw some criticisms of the distinction between observational and theoretical terms:
 What is observable by one person may not be so by another
 There is no sharp cut-off between what is observable and what is not
 Observation itself is theory-laden

Do these problems apply to the observable/unobservable distinction too?
The first criticism - that what is observable is different for different people - van Fraassen would probably claim to have solved by his definition of being observable
Being observable is a matter of being the sort of thing human sense organs can observe, not the sorts of things I or any particular person can observe

What about the fact that being observable is vague - that there is no sharp cut off between observables and unobservables?
Van Fraassen’s response is that lots of perfectly good concepts are vague
There is no sharp cut off between being bald and having a full head of hair, but that doesn’t mean there is no such distinction

Van Fraassen seems to accept theory-laddenness
He thinks this doesn’t affect the observable-unobservable distinction since his version doesn’t require a distinction between observation and theory like the positivists did

These responses, of course, are still a matter for controversy

Criticism

Why draw the line at what is observable?
Why should science aim only for that?
Why think it’s a good idea to only believe things about observables?
Why not draw the line somewhere else, say at what is detectable? Or what can be inferred from what is detectable? Or somewhere else even?

Godfrey-Smith: This choice seems arbitrary - there seems no reason not to think that believing things about unobservables can be just as reasonable as about observables
Why not try to latch onto all aspects of reality, whether observable or not, that we can get reliable information about?
A restriction to observables seems unjustified
 
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Churchland vs. van Fraassen

Paul Churchland (1942-) - philosopher of mind and philosopher of science

Churchland is a minimal scientific realist but not an optimistic one
He is opposed to van Fraassen’s rejection of accuracy as an aim of science

Churchland: There is no reason to treat unobservables any differently than observables
Skepticism applies equally to claims about unobservables and claims about observables

One option is that all of our observational evidence is compatible with numerous theories dealing with unobservables and hence we don’t really know which theory is true
Churchland: But the same can be said for theories dealing with observables
In fact, if we can’t know a theory is true since that goes beyond our observation, we can’t know it is empirically adequate either since it does the same
So observables and unobservables are in the same boat, as are truth and empirical adequacy
Empirical adequacy and truths about observables are just as vulnerable to skepticism as truths about unobservables
 
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Churchland vs. van Fraassen

Churchland: It is also not clear why, if being observable is so important, we should only count as observable thosethings that are observable by our unaided sense organs
Things that are observable only through an electron microscope would not count as observable, for instance

Consider a race more or less exactly like human beings except that they are born with electron microscopes over one eye
Thus, their unaided sense organs are able to observe things ours are not
Suppose you attached an electron microscope to a human in the same way
The human would see the same things as those born with the microscope
Yet these things would count as observables for the non-human born with the microscope and as unobservables for the human who had it attached later
Van Fraassen’s view would let the person born with the microscope believe in what she saw, but not the human being

This seems strange - why is it okay for one of them but not the other when they see exactly the same things?
This does not seem to be a justified difference
They ought both to be justified in believing in what they saw or both unjustified

Churchland: van Fraassen’s view does let us get away with fewer beliefs and this lets us get away with less risk of having false beliefs
But why think that this is a good thing rather than a bad thing?
Restricting my beliefs to being only about things under 500 lbs. would also give me less risk of having false beliefs, but that would not be a reasonable strategy
 
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The Pessimistic Induction

Not everyone who accepts minimal scientific realism also accepts optimistic scientific realism
Churchland and Popper both fall into this category

One of the key arguments against optimism is the pessimistic induction (also sometimes called the pessimistic metainduction)
This argument was originated by Larry Laudan
Laudan rejects both parts of optimistic scientific realism
 The optimistic second part
 And minimal scientific realism

Laudan rejects minimal scientific realism since he thinks making progress solving empirical and conceptual problems is the aim of science, not truth or accuracy

Laudan rejects optimism about our scientific theories because of his pessimistic induction
Laudan points out numerous theories from past science which have ended up being rejected
He also points out numerous sorts of hypothetical theoretical entities which were once accepted but are now rejected
Caloric, phlogiston, the ether, and other theoretical entities were once part of successful theories but they, along with their theories, have been abandoned
History, Laudan urges, is filled with such examples
Given this pattern, it seems likely that our current theories and theoretical entities will end up being rejected as well

Rather than being confident about the accuracy of our theories and the existence of our theoretical entities, Laudan thinks history shows we should have serious doubts
Current theories are likely to be rejected and replaced and its theoretical entities abandoned

There are a few responses optimistic scientific realists can give here
One response is to look at the history of long-running successes in science, which do not look that they will be replaced
 Atoms, germs, and genes all look they are here to stay, for instance
Another response is to insist that most of the rejected theories were accurate in some important way
 
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Structural Realism

John Worrall takes this last approach
Worrall thinks the pessimistic induction does cast doubt on the existence of some of our theoretical entities
But, he thinks, it doesn’t support the idea that our theories, even if the entities they posit do not exist, still are accurate in some important ways
Our confidence in our basic physics, for instance, is that certain basic structural features of the world have been reliably captured
This is true even if there are no quarks

The basic idea here is that we can be confident that our physics captures the mathematical relationships present in the real world, but maybe not what sorts of things are out there standing in such relations
Caloric theory, for instance, was accurate about some of the mathematics that apply to the world, but not that this involved caloric

Criticism

Stathis Psillos: It’s not clear you can adequately capture the structure of the world without also to some extent capturing what is in it
Godfrey-Smith: Since our theoretical terms are supposed to refer to exactly the things which stand in these structures, it’s not clear how well you could get the structures without the entities as well

To do on your own: Suppose you are already convinced that the theoretical entities that show up in our fundamental theories probably do not exist. Now suppose you become convinced of Giere’s views about science as a model building enterprise. Can you use these views now to support some kind of structural realism? Explain.
 
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16. Board Game: Terre Invisibili [Average Rating:3.30 Unranked]
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Entity Realism

Ian Hacking follows Nancy Cartwright (his ex-wife, actually) in taking the opposite view from Worrall’s
Our basic physics and perhaps some other scientific theories are not accurate
But electrons, etc. do exist

Hacking: Scientists are often instrumentalists about their theories, but not about the entities postulated by them
We can have confidence, for many of our theoretical entities, that they exist even though the theories involving them are all wrong
Accurate theories, however, are simply not an aim of science in the first place

Hacking rejects Kuhn’s holism about theoretical terms
Kuhn thought a theoretical term gets its meaning from its place in our theories - so that if our theories change, the meaning of the term does so as well
Hacking, following much contemporary philosophy of language, thinks that once a term latches onto some real entity, it continues to refer to it even throughout changes in theory

Electrons and many other theoretical entities exist since they can affect things, can be manipulated by us, and can be used by us to affect other things
We do not simply explain things using electrons, but we actually use them to do things in the real world
For theoretical entities not being used, we lack this confidence

Contrary to constructive empiricism, since we can manipulate some unobservables, we can say they exist - even if we can only see them through a microscope!

Criticism

Psillos: We need to know something about electrons and other such entities in order to know that they exist at all and in order to know how to manipulate them
Hence, not all of our theories involving such entities can be completely inaccurate
Some accuracy is needed in order to deal with such entities in the first place
 
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17. Board Game: Miracles and Pitfalls [Average Rating:4.33 Unranked]
David Spencer
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The "No Miracles" Argument

The "No Miracles" argument (along with variations on it) is one of the key arguments for optimistic scientific realism
Basic idea: If at least many of our current theories were not accurate, the overall success of our theories would be an inexplicable miracle
The best explanation for their success is that they are in fact accurate
If they were not true, it would be unlikely that they would be as successful as they in fact are

Notice that this argument can be seen as a kind of abduction from the success of science to the accuracy of many of its theories

Criticism

Other things could explain the success of our theories, not just their truth
Multiple errors can sometimes compensate for each other
As Worrall suggests, we might get some of the structure right but not the entities involved
 
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18. Board Game: The Abductinators [Average Rating:0.00 Unranked]
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Explaining Success

James Robert Brown defends a version of the No Miracles argument
He thinks that alternative explanations can work for some aspects of our theories’ success, but not necessarily all of them

Three ways in which our theories are successful:
 They are able to organize and unify a great variety of known phenomena
 This ability to systematize the empirical data is more extensive now than it was for previous theories
 A statistically significant number of novel predictions pan out, i.e., our theories get more predictions right than mere guessing would allow

Defenders of the No Miracles argument want to say that these three aspects are best explained by the accuracy of a lot of our theories
Van Fraassen and many other anti-realists, however, do not think that one is allowed to use abduction when the conclusion involves unobservables
But it looks the argument is doing this

If atomic theory is accurate, for instance, this means that certain unobservables exist
So to conclude that atomic theory is accurate based on its success is to form an abduction using unobservables, which is just what many anti-realists object to
Science makes these sorts of abductions all the time, but anti-realists urge us to be skeptical about their conclusions

Brown: Anti-realists use abduction too, so it cannot be always bad
To be consistent, they have to insist that it is only bad when involving unobservables
But it’s not clear that there is sufficient reason to justify such a restriction on abduction
 
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19. Board Game: Lamarckian Poker [Average Rating:6.54 Overall Rank:7720]
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Explaining Success

Van Fraassen: Only the theories which do well with the empirical data survive
That is, successful theories live to continue being successful and unsuccessful ones die off in a somewhat Darwinian fashion
This explains the first two aspects of our theories’ success
It explains their systematizing power since it is precisely their ability to deal well with the empirical data that makes them survive in science
It explains the fact that this power is greater for our current theories than previous ones since our current ones were more fit than the previous ones and hence replaced the latter
So, if van Fraassen is right, his account can explain at least the first two aspects of scientific success without any appeal to the accuracy of any of our theories

Problem: It’s not clear that we should automatically always choose the theory that deals the best with the empirical data
But van Fraassen’s view needs it to be the case that we should always do this, since his view needs the theories which are best empirically to be the ones that survive
Otherwise, his explanation will not work
 
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20. Board Game: Basket of Fruit [Average Rating:0.00 Unranked]
David Spencer
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Explaining Success

Brown: Even if van Fraassen can explain those first two aspects of our theories’ success, he cannot do the same for the third
Remember what this aspect of success was:
 A statistically significant number of novel predictions pan out, i.e., our theories get more predictions right than mere guessing would allow

Just because our theories deal with current empirical data well does not give us any reason to think that they will be able to get so many novel predictions right
The accuracy of our theories, however, would increase our theories’ chances for making successful predictions

Of course, our theories could be successful in all three ways without also being accurate
But, all else being equal, they are much more likely to be successful if they are accurate than if not
So the accuracy of many of our theories is a reasonable conclusion based on their success
 
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21. Board Game: Divide and Conquer [Average Rating:5.83 Unranked]
David Spencer
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Divide and Conquer?

Godfrey-Smith: Perhaps we ought not to talk about whether our theories are almost all accurate or inaccurate
Perhaps we should look at various fields and theories individually
We might then find that we ought to have different levels and different kinds of confidence in different domains

Maybe for some difficult-to-interpret, abstract equations in theoretical physics, for instance, we should adopt something closer to structural realism - we can be confident that we have latched onto some of the structural features of the world
Maybe we should have stronger optimism for fields such as molecular biology
 It is easy to interpret
 The history of the field supports the idea that we are slowly accumulating knowledge and that the foundational theories are very probably accurate

Perhaps we can construct a much more nuanced optimistic scientific realism on this basis
 
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22. Board Game Accessory: Memoir '44: Campaign Bag
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An overview of the views of the main players in units 1-4:

Positivists (Hempel)
Scientific testing: Hypothetico-Deductivism
Scientific progress: Accumulation
Theories: Set of sentences (w/bridge laws)
Explanations: Covering-law
Science as: Verifiability
Minimal realism: No - rejects part 2, possibly part 1
Optimistic realism: No

Popper
Scientific testing: Falsificationism
Scientific progress: Conjecture/refutation
Science as: Falsifiability
Minimal realism: Yes, barely
Optimistic realism: No - rejects part 2

Kuhn
Scientific testing: Dependent on paradigm
Scientific progress: Revolutions, paradigms
Explanations: Contextualist
Science as: Puzzle-solving
Minimal realism: Radical Kuhn rejects part 1, might also do so for part 2
Optimistic realism: Might reject both parts

Lakatos
Scientific testing: Research program progress
Scientific progress: Research programs
Science as: Research program progress
Minimal realism: Yes
Optimistic realism: ?

Laudan
Scientific testing: Dependent on research tradition
Scientific progress: Research traditions
Science as: Research tradition progress
Minimal realism: No - rejects part 2
Optimistic realism: No

Giere
Scientific progress: Building better models
Theories: Models plus theoretical hypotheses
Explanations: Can use models
Science as: Model building and refining
Minimal realism: Yes
Optimistic realism: Yes
1 
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