Refutation and tradition: An uneasy relationship

23rd May 2014

Roland Fletcher

Introduction*

When a statement is made we are entitled to appraise it in whatever way is appropriate for the kind of statement it is. We appraise statements of different kinds in different ways. Applying the pragmatic criterion of refutability is one way of making an appraisal. We simply ask whether the statement is couched in a form which would allow us to check whether it does or does not describe the aspect of reality which it purports to describe. The procedure is necessary when we must ask whether we ought to accept a proposition which, on other grounds of appraisal, we might prefer to accept. In essence we should use a refutation procedure if we consider that it may be unwise to believe what we would prefer to believe. This should not lead us to suppose that because the procedure is necessary it is either straightforward or simple. The debate about refutation has shown that it is neither. While refutation is plainly possible it requires adjuncts such as standardised calibration of instruments. Nor can refutation be reduced to a unitary practise which might either be comprehensively condemned or else must be universally supported. Like other human enterprises it can be improperly and dogmatically applied. For instance, what has become apparent over the past fifty years is that naive falsification, which specifies that a refuted (falsified) explanation must be abandoned, is both inherently conservative and counter-productive.

*Note that an abstract was not included with this paper, and so the introductory paragraph has been included here instead of the abstract.

Fletcher, R.
Refutation and tradition: An uneasy relationship
December 1991
33
59–62
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