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THE REDISCOVERY OF EXPERIMENT / Robert P Crease //QCIENCE WALKS FORWARD on two feet, namely theory and Oexperiment," wrote American scientist Robert Millikan on the occasion of receiving the Nobel Prize for physics in 1924. "Sometimes it is one foot which is put forward first, sometimes the other, but continuous progress is only made by the use of both—by theorizing and then testing, or by finding new relations in the process of experimenting and then bringing the theoretical foot up and pushing it on beyond, and so on in unending alterations." MiUikan's metaphor neatly points out an unquestionable division of labor present in modern science. The distinction is most prominent in physics, MiUikan's calling, whose practitioners are usually classifiable either as theorists or experimenters. Even in other fields, however, in which individuals are not so easily categorized, the performance of science involves clearly distinguishable theoretical and experimental roles. But MiUikan's metaphor does not go very far in answering questions about the nature of each role, or about the nature of the relation between the two. Scientists rarely meditate on such questions in the course of their professional work, which is probably all for the best. When pressed to explain this relation, they often fall back on the commonsense view according to which science is principally connected with the development of theories—the Theory of Evolution, the Theory of Relativity, the Big Bang Theory," and so forth. These theories, in this commonsense view, depict what the world is like. Experiments are checks that see whether the theories are true or false, and which guide us to construct newer and better theories telling us ever more about the world. The question of the true relation between theory and experiment is not an idle one. However well-meaning, the traditional picture feeds into the subconscious faith of our culture that science possesses an automatic and inexorable method of gathering information—that it is the correct way of answering questions about the world—and encourages belief in the inexorabUity of scientific progress. Scientists are then regarded as a priestly class of individuals whose work, however Uttle comprehended, is held to be essential to the continuance of civilization. The expectation of a technological solution to end the threat of warfare is only the most easily exposed Ulusion symptomatic The Missouri Review · 279 of this faith; who among us does not fervently anticipate that AIDS, Uke smaUpox and polio, will eventually be cured by some treatment devised by scientists? This faith makes us resistant to noticing that nothing about the work of scientists is automatic or inexorable, but is as fuU of judgments, interpretations, and risks as any other. PhUosophers, if anyone, ought to shoulder the responsibUity for disabusing us of this myth. These individuals have charged themselves professionally with studying the nature and practice of activities such as science, art, law, and the like from a thoughtful distance. Their work should provide whatever correctives are needed to dispel the mists which tend to shroud certain kinds of activities in every culture. They ought to be the ones to flesh out MiUikan's metaphor and discover what the proper relation is between theory and experiment in the activity of science. Alas, philosophers of all persuasions seem to take the popular image of science at face value. Indeed, they seem content to revere science from a distance, and even hold it up as the paradigm for intellectual activity in general; "Science is the measure of all things," wrote University of Pittsburgh philosopher Wilfred Sellars in an influential book in the 1960s. Far from probing beneath the conventional image of science, our phüosophers have sanctified it. For them, too, the aim and highest achievement of science is theory construction. Theories are the vehicles of scientific truth, and they represent nature "as it is" independently of cultural, historical, or aesthetic factors; scientific truth is a purely cognitive affair. Experimentation plays a supporting role to theoretical work; its role is limited to theory confirmation or falsification, and experiments have no constitutive role in what the theories are about. Philosophers of science therefore have concentrated almost exclusively on theoretical, rather than experimental, problems. They debate such questions...


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