Continuing from Part One on “Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes” (1970).
We try to clarify the difference between dogmatic falsificationism, the view commonly attributed to Karl Popper whereby a disconfirming experiment is taken to definitively refute a scientific theory, with methodological falsificationism, which is what Lakatos attributes to Popper.
A methodological falsificationist does not uncritically accept all the background assumptions behind an experiment, e.g. that the measurements employed in the experiment don’t themselves have faulty theory built into them (what if telescopes simply didn’t work the way Galileo thought?). But for the purposes of a particular experiment, the scientist provisionally accepts all those background assumptions as true, and so only proves the hypothetical “If the background assumptions are true, then the experiment disproves the theory.” Scientists can of course later examine those background assumptions, but the conflict involved in a particular experiment is still (potentially) between that experiment and the theory it’s setting out to test.
Lakatos claims, on the contrary, the conflict is always triangular: between the experiment, the theory that it’s testing, and a potential replacement theory. If you don’t have another possible theory at hand that would better explain the experimental results, then there’s in practice no justification to reject the old theory, as opposed to just continuing to puzzle over the anomalous results, perhaps trying to refine the background assumptions that produced them, perhaps just accepting them as an anomaly to live with (like other anomalies that no doubt exist and have been acknowledged as ongoing problems with whatever theory we’re talking about). Lakatos calls his view “sophisticated methodological falsificationism.”
In the full episode, we get more about Lakatos’ positive account of research programs: Each of these involves negative heuristics, which are directives on what investigations to avoid, i.e. ones that would conflict with the hard core of the theory. So materialistic science discourages research into psychic phenomena that would fundamentally conflict with its core tenets. A research program also involves positive heuristics, which are directives about what will be worthwhile to study. Scientists aren’t just reacting to potentially troubling observations; the program provides a roadmap for figuring out what new facts the theory should predict. What are the surprising implications of the theory?
The later portions of Lakatos’ essay are largely taken up by case studies, e.g. Niels Bohr’s development of his model of the atom. We’re very glad to have Dylan, our resident physics Ph.D. on the podcast!