Tag Archive: severity

Severely risky

A serious empirical test always consists in the attempt to find a refutation, a counterexample. In the search for a counterexample, we have to use our background knowledge; for we always try to refute first the most risky predictions, the ‘most unlikely … consequences’ (as Peirce already saw); which means that we always look in the most probable kinds of places for the most probable kinds of counterexamples—most probable in the sense that we should expect to find them in the light of our background knowledge. Now if a theory stands up to many such tests, then, owing to the incorporation of the results of our tests into our background knowledge, there may be, after a time, no places left where (in the light of our new background knowledge) counter examples can with a high probability be expected to occur. But this means that the degree of severity of our test declines. This is also the reason why an often repeated test will no longer be considered as significant or as severe: there is something like a law of diminishing returns from repeated tests (as opposed to tests which, in the light of our background knowledge, are of a new kind, and which therefore may still be felt to be significant). These are facts which are inherent in the knowledge-situation; and they have often been described—especially by John Maynard Keynes and by Ernest Nagel—as difficult to explain by an inductivist theory of science. But for us it is all very easy. And we can even explain, by a similar analysis of the knowledge-situation, why the empirical character of a very successful theory always grows stale, after a time. We may then feel (as Poincaré did with respect to Newton’s theory) that the theory is nothing but a set of implicit definitions or conventions—until we progress again and, by refuting it, incidentally re-establish its lost empirical character. (De mortuis nil nisi bene: once a theory is refuted, its empirical character is secure and shines without blemish.) [325-6]