Corroboration and refutation

Well, Popperians might speak of a theory being the best available for use in practice, given a certain problem-situation. And the most important features of a problem-situation are: what theories and explanations are in contention, what arguments have been advanced, and what theories have been refuted. ‘Corroboration’ is not just the confirmation of the winning theory. It requires the experimental refutation of rival theories. Confirming instances in themselves have no significance. …

Under inductivism, observation was supposed to be primary. One imagined a mass of past observations from which the theory was supposed to be induced, and observations also constituted the evidence which somehow justified the theory. In the Popperian picture of scientific progress, it is not observations but problems, controversies, theories and criticism that are primary. Experiments are designed and performed only to resolve controversies. Therefore only experimental results that actually do refute a theory – and not just any theory, it must have been a genuine contender in a rational controversy – constitute ‘corroboration’. And so it is only those experiments that provide evidence for the reliability of the winning theory. …

And even then, the ‘reliability’ that corroboration confers is not absolute but only relative to the other contending theories. That is, we expect the strategy of relying on corroborated theories to select the best theories from those that are proposed. That is a sufficient basis for action. We do not need (and could not validly get) any assurance about how good even the best proposed course of action will be. Furthermore, we may always be mistaken, but so what? We cannot use theories that have yet to be proposed; nor can we correct errors that we cannot yet see. [148-9]

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