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  • Why Construing Theories of Depression as Lakatos' Research Programs Might Spell Trouble for their Proponents
  • Dien Ho (bio)

In his "Let the drugs lead the way! On the unfolding of a research program in psychiatry," Shai Mulinari nicely lays out the evolution of theories of depression since the late 1950s; that is, understanding depression as ultimately a brain disorder centering on the functioning of monoamine neurotransmitters. Moreover, the emergence of various psychotropic drug treatments have provided researchers with a "pharmacological bridge" to gain a more precise understanding of depression by observing the effects of these drugs on patients' monoamines and mood. This evolution, Mulinari argues, fits Imre Lakatos's concept of a research program. Mulinari's narrative is clear, compelling, and informative and it generates some further discussions that I wish to outline.

Demarcation Criteria

Lakatos's concept of a research program is an integral part of his broader attempt to demarcate science from pseudoscience—a project that philosophers began to undertake during the early days of logical positivism. In light of the tremendous progress made in science, especially physics, in the beginning of the twentieth century, positivists looked to understand the structure of science in an attempt to propagate its epistemic and methodological characteristics to other intellectual endeavors. By the mid-1950s, however, it became clear that the positivists' project had encountered some significant obstacles. The search for the defining characteristics of science (demarcation criteria), for instance, encountered serious problems. Earlier attempts to rely on evidential confirmation to explicate demarcation criteria failed to distinguish genuine sciences from typical pseudosciences like astrology. Finding confirming evidence was too easy: Astrologists can simply make trivial and plausible predictions (e.g., "Today, you will experience moments of doubt"). The failure of these attempts prompted post-positivist like Karl Popper to pivot away from confirmation to falsification as the proper [End Page 305] demarcation criterion (see Popper 1963). To wit, Popper argues that genuine sciences make predictions that can be shown false. Marxism (Popper's example) fails because when its predictions (e.g., the impending socialist revolution) turn out to be false, its proponents would simply make ad hoc adjustments so that the refuting evidence does not conflict with the cherished theory.

Lakatos's concept of a research program should be understood in the context of this philosophical genealogy. As he rightly points out, falsifiability does not properly capture the essence of science. Paradigmatic scientists, including Isaac Newton, did not simply abandon their theories in the face of false predictions. They often acknowledge failings and anomalies that their theories cannot account for with the hope that researchers will be able to address them in the future. Lakatos argues instead that the presence of a research program constitutes a mark of a genuine science. A research program contains a set of core principles (the hard core) to which the practitioners of the program subscribe. These principles are never challenged by the researchers. Around the core is a set of auxiliary hypotheses, definitions, beliefs, and positive heuristics that form a protective belt. When an observation conflicts with the program, researchers make adjustments such as abandoning certain auxiliary beliefs in the protective belt to restore consistency. The set of positive heuristics tell the practitioners how to revise the protective belt.

In addition to demarcating science from pseudoscience, Lakatos's research program also tells us when it is rational to abandon a research program and switch to a competitor. A research program, according to Lakatos, can be progressive or degenerative. A progressive program makes surprising and novel predictions while a degenerative one consistently makes ad hoc adjustments to save the core principles. This view is a direct reaction to Thomas Kuhn's claim that scientific revolutions are irrational, violent, and sudden. Scientific shifts, Kuhn claims, are not epistemically cumulative (i.e., the new theory needs not do all the explanatory work of the replaced one). Kuhn's revolutions are akin to religious conversions while Lakatos' are gradual, rational, and progressive. Lakatos, in a nutshell, tries to strike a balance between Popper's post-positivist view of science as logically structured (e.g., one can tell semantically if a theory is scientific on the basis...


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