(Mis)Understanding scientific disagreement: Success versus pursuit-worthiness in theory choice

Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 85:166-175 (2021)
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Scientists often diverge widely when choosing between research programs. This can seem to be rooted in disagreements about which of several theories, competing to address shared questions or phenomena, is currently the most epistemically or explanatorily valuable—i.e. most successful. But many such cases are actually more directly rooted in differing judgments of pursuit-worthiness, concerning which theory will be best down the line, or which addresses the most significant data or questions. Using case studies from 16th-century astronomy and 20th-century geology and biology, I argue that divergent theory choice is thus often driven by considerations of scientific process, even where direct epistemic or explanatory evaluation of its final products appears more relevant. Broadly following Kuhn’s analysis of theoretical virtues, I suggest that widely shared criteria for pursuit-worthiness function as imprecise, mutually-conflicting values. However, even Kuhn and others sensitive to pragmatic dimensions of theory ‘acceptance’, including the virtue of fruitfulness, still commonly understate the role of pursuit-worthiness—especially by exaggerating the impact of more present-oriented virtues, or failing to stress how ‘competing’ theories excel at addressing different questions or data. This framework clarifies the nature of the choice and competition involved in theory choice, and the role of alternative theoretical virtues.

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Eli I. Lichtenstein
University of Edinburgh


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