Unconceived Alternatives and the Incentive Structure of Scientific Research

17 September 2007, 16:00, EMBL Large Operon

Kyle Stanford, University of California - Irvine

Scientific realism is the extremely widespread and commonsensical view that our scientific theories provide us descriptions of otherwise inaccessible domains of nature that are at least probably and/or approximately true. I will begin by discussing a quite general challenge to any such realist view of at least fundamental scientific theories that I call the problem of unconceived alternatives: it suggests that the historical record of scientific inquiry itself gives us compelling empirical reasons to believe that there are presently unconceived alternatives to even our best scientific theories that are equally well-confirmed by the evidence we have.

I will go on to suggest that we should not expect today's scientific communities to be any less vulnerable to the problem than were scientific communities of the past, and I will conclude by arguing that this should lead us to make some important changes in the ways that the scientific enterprise is supported and incentivized by contemporary nations and their governments.