Scientific Controversies: Philosophical and Historical Perspectives

Scientific Controversies: Philosophical and Historical Perspectives

Scientific Controversies: Philosophical and Historical Perspectives

Scientific Controversies: Philosophical and Historical Perspectives


Traditionally it has been thought that scientific controversies can always be resolved on the basis of empirical data. Recently, however, social constructionists have claimed that the outcome of scientific debates is strongly influenced by non-evidential factors such as the rhetorical prowess and professional clout of the participants. This volume of previously unpublished essays by well-known philosophers of science presents historical studies and philosophical analyses that undermine the plausibility of an extreme social constructionist perspective while also indicating the need for a richer and more realistic account of scientific rationality.


Aristotle disputed with his precursors and predecessors about atoms, void, space, movement, celestial spheres, and so on. Galileo argued against Ptolemy and contemporary seventeenth-century Aristotelians about the fundamental laws of motion, the structure of the universe, the causes of tides, floating bodies, and so on. Newton quarreled with Descartes, Hooke, Boyle, and many others about colors, light, and other topics. Einstein had controversies with Poincaré and Lorentz about absolute space and time, and with Bohr, Born, and many others about quantum mechanical laws.

Many major steps in science, probably all dramatic changes, and most of the fundamental achievements of what we now take as the advancement or progress of scientific knowledge have been controversial and have involved some dispute or another. Scientific controversies are found throughout the history of science. This is so well known that it is trivial.

What is not so obvious and deserves attention is a sort of paradoxical dissociation between science as actually practiced and science as perceived or depicted by both scientists and philosophers. While nobody would deny that science in the making has been replete with controversies, the same people often depict its essence or end product as free from disputes, as the uncontroversial rational human endeavor par excellence. Of course, neither scientists or philosophers have been unaware of controversies. Nevertheless, they have been reluctant to recognize when and how controversy plays a constitutive role in the development of scientific knowledge.

Most, if not all, philosophers have maintained either that, in science controversies arise from detectable, and so correctable, errors, or they should be relegated to . . .

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