The Problem of Piecemeal Induction

Philosophy of Science 78 (5):864-874 (2011)
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It is common to assume that the problem of induction arises only because of small sample sizes or unreliable data. In this paper, I argue that the piecemeal collection of data can also lead to underdetermination of theories by evidence, even if arbitrarily large amounts of completely reliable experimental and observational data are collected. Specifically, I focus on the construction of causal theories from the results of many studies (perhaps hundreds), including randomized controlled trials and observational studies, where the studies focus on overlapping, but not identical, sets of variables. Two theorems reveal that, for any collection of variables V, there exist fundamentally different causal theories over V that cannot be distinguished unless all variables are simultaneously measured. Underdetermination can result from piecemeal measurement, regardless of the quantity and quality of the data. Moreover, I generalize these results to show that, a priori, it is impossible to choose a series of small (in terms of number of variables) observational studies that will be most informative with respect to the causal theory describing the variables under investigation. This final result suggests that scientific institutions may need to play a larger role in coordinating differing research programs during inquiry.
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