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What Does History Matter to Philosophy of Science? The Concept of Replication and the Methodology of Experiments

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AbstractScientists and philosophers generally agree that the replication of experiments is a key ingredient of good and successful scientific practice. “One-offs” are not significant; experiments must be replicable to be considered valid and important. But the term “replication” has been used in a number of ways, and it is therefore quite difficult to appraise the meaning and significance of replications. I consider how history may help – and has helped – with this task. I propose that: 1) Studies of past scientific episodes in historical context and of recent philosophical contributions to the discussion are heuristic tools for exploring and clarifying the meaning of that concept. 2) The analysis of the development of the methodological imperative of replication sheds light on the significance scientists have attached to it, thereby contributing further to the clarification of the concept. 3) The analysis of the history of philosophical thought about methods and scientific methodology helps understand why philosophers have not paid much attention to the analysis of the concept of replication.

1. FN11) See e.g. R. M. Burian, “Comments on the Precarious Relation between History of Science and Philosophy of Science”, Perspectives on Science, 10 (2002), 398–407; L. Laudan, “Thoughts on HPS: 20 Years Later”, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 20 (1989), 9–13.
2. FN22) See J. Schickore, “More Thoughts on HPS: Another 20 Years Later”, Perspectives on Science 19 (2011), 453–81.
3. FN33) P. K. Knoefel, Francesco Redi on Vipers (Leiden: Brill, 1988).
4. FN44) For details on the controversy, see J. Schickore, “Trying Again and Again: Multiple Repetitions in Early Modern Reports of Experiments on Snake Bites”, Early Science and Medicine 15 (2010), 567–617.
5. FN55) This was most likely a rhetorical move, however. Redi used a similar strategy several times, quite obviously to ridicule his opponent.
6. FN66) Knoefel, Francesco Redi on Vipers, 3.
7. FN77) Ibid., 9.
8. FN88) Ibid., 9–10; emphasis added.
9. FN99) Ibid., 8.
10. FN1010) Ibid., 8.
11. FN1111) Ibid., 41.
12. FN1212) See S. Shapin and S. Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump. Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985). I will come back to this below.
13. FN1313) These types of repetitions resemble the characteristics of “exploratory experimentation” (see F. Steinle, “Entering New Fields: Exploratory Uses of Experimentation”, Philosophy of Science Supplement, 64 (1996), S65–S74). Note, however, that “exploratory experimentation” is an analyst’s conceptual framework to grasp experimental practices that are not aimed at testing theories but at the generation of concepts. My types of repetition seek to capture the tenets and rules for validating experimental outcomes that the experimenters themselves made explicit.
14. FN1414) It also contains a second essay on problems of microscopical observation.
15. FN1515) F. Fontana, Treatise on the Venom of the Viper, on the American Poisons, and on the Cherry-Laurel, and some Other Vegetable Poisons. To Which are Annexed Observations of the Primitive Structure of the Animal Body, Different Experiments on the Reproduction of the Nerves, and a Description of a New Canal of the Eye [1781], vol. I (London: J. Murray, 1787), 119–30.
16. FN1616) Ibid., 125.
17. FN1717) H. Collins, “The Seven Sexes: A Study in the Sociology of a Phenomenon, or the Replication of Experiments in Physics”, Sociology, 9 (1975), 205–224, 210.
18. FN1818) Shapin and Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump, 225.
19. FN1919) Ibid., 226.
20. FN2020) G. N. Gilbert and M. Mulkay, “Replication and Mere Replication”, Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 16 (1986), 21–37.
21. FN2121) As will become clear below, Franklin has directed much of his later work against Collins and other social constructivists. I am assuming that at the time he produced the 1984 article, Franklin was not yet aware of Collins’s work.
22. FN2222) A. Franklin and C. Howson, “Why Do Scientists Prefer to Vary Their Experiments?”, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 15 (1984), 51–62.
23. FN2323) M. Hones, “Reproducibility as a Methodological Imperative in Experimental Research”, PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association (1990), 585–599.
24. FN2424) H. Radder, “Experimenting in the Natural Sciences. A Philosophical Approach” in J. Z. Buchwald (ed.), Scientific Practice. Theories and Stories of Doing Physics (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 56–86; see also H. Radder, “Experimental Reproducibility and the Experimenters’ Regress”, PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association (1992), 63–73.
25. FN2525) Note that Bogen misunderstands Collins’s original point. He assumes that Collins agrees with Popper that replication is a necessary condition of successful experimentation.
26. FN2626) J. Bogen, “ ‘Two as Good as a Hundred’: Poorly Replicated Evidence in Some Nineteenth-Century Neuroscientific Research”, Studies in History and Philosophy of Biology and Biomedical Sciences, 32 (2001), 491–533, 512.
27. FN2727) Cf. ibid., 512–14. Bogen’s main point is that that none of the three forms of replication is necessary for the establishment of Jackson’s theory of the organization of the brain.
28. FN2828) J. Schickore, “Scientists’ Methods Accounts: S. Weir Mitchell’s Research on the Venom of Poisonous Snakes” in T. Schmaltz and S. Mauskopf (eds.), Integrating History and Philosophy of Science: Problems and Prospects (Dordrecht: Springer, forthcoming).
29. FN2929) W. C. Wimsatt, “Robustness, Reliability, and Overdetermination” in M. Brewer and B. E. Collins (eds.), Scientific Inquiry and the Social Sciences (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1981), 124–163, 125.
30. FN3030) See W. Bechtel, “Deciding on the Data: Epistemological Problems Surrounding Instruments and Research Techniques in Cell Biology,” PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association (1994), 167–178; K. W. Staley, “Robust Evidence and Secure Evidence Claims”, Philosophy of Science, 71 (2004), 467–88.
31. FN3131) P. Findlen, “Controlling the experiment: rhetoric, court patronage and the experimental method of Francesco Redi”, History of science (1993), 35–64; J. Tribby, “Cooking (with) Clio and Cleo: Eloquence and Experiment in Seventeenth-Century Florence.” Journal of the History of Ideas, 52 (1991), 417–439.
32. FN3232) E.g. M. Trumpler, “Verification and Variation: Patterns of Experimentation in Investigations of Galvanism in Germany, 1790–1800”, Philosophy of Science, 64 (1997), S75–S84; S. Culp, “Objectivity in Experimental Inquiry: Breaking the Data-Technique Circles”, Philosophy of Science, 62 (1995), 430–450.
33. FN3333) Alan Richardson has made this point with regard to the history of analytic philosophy. Richardson argues that to understand the contours of philosophy of science today, it is indispensable to understand our own recent past – and to do that, we will need to do more than just trace particular concepts through the standard texts of the discipline (A. Richardson, “Scientific Philosophy as a Topic for History of Science”, Isis, 99 (2008), 88-06). In fact, this is a motivation for several of the works that have been produced in the context of HOPOS, see, e.g. D. Howard, “Lost Wanderers in the Forest of Knowledge: Some Thoughts on the Discovery-Justification Distinction” in J. Schickore and F. Steinle (eds.), Revisiting Discovery and Justification. Historical and Philosophical Perspectives on the Context Distinction (Dordrecht: Springer, 2006), 3–22.
34. FN3434) E.g. I. Hacking, Representing and Intervening (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).
35. FN3535) H. Collins, Changing Order: Replication and Induction in Scientific Practice (London: Sage, 1985), 37.
36. FN3636) See, in particular, Allan Franklin’s numerous attacks on Collins’s work (e.g. A. Franklin, “The Epistemology of Experiment” in Gooding, D. et al. (Eds.), The Uses of Experiment. Studies in the Natural Sciences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 437–460; A. Franklin, “How to Avoid the Experimenters’ Regress”, Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 25 (1994), 463–491).
37. FN3737) Franklin claims that the rationality of these strategies can be independently demonstrated. He provides an argument showing that the strategies can be embedded in a Bayesian approach.
38. FN3838) Franklin, “The Epistemology of Experiment”, 459.
39. FN3939) Radder, “Experimental Reproducibility and the Experimenters’ Regress”, 63.
40. FN4040) See also Culp, “Objectivity in Experimental Inquiry: Breaking the Data-Technique Circles”.
41. FN4141) Jed Buchwald has made a first attempt at tracing and explaining the changing attitude to discrepant measurement in the 18th century (J. Z. Buchwald, “Discrepant Measurements and Experimental Knowledge in the Early Modern Era”, Archive for the History of the Exact Sciences, 60 (2006), 565–649).

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