Context and Error in Scientific Experiments

Context and Error in the Epistemology of Scientific Experiment

Thomas Dohmen

Within traditional epistemology, skeptical scenarios challenge the idea that knowledge can be gained. These scenarios demand a level of justification—which has to be delivered in order to call something "knowledge"—that is impossible to reach. A way to deal with these skeptical scenarios is offered by an approach called contextualism, in which it seems reasonable to disregard skeptical scenarios in certain contexts, thereby justifying the attribution of knowledge in those constrained contexts.

The project "Generating Experimental Knowledge" investigated the critical role of error in experimental science. Scientists use experiments to generate knowledge. They rely on various "standard" methods to ensure that the experiment provides them with correct data. By relying on these methods, scientists seem to be justified in attributing knowledge to the theories that have been confirmed by experiments or to theories that follow the outcome of experiments, although possible errors have not been (individually) accounted for.

The claim of this part of the project was that, by referring to such standard methods, scientists create a context of justification that enables them to attribute knowledge in the same way that the epistemic contextualists create a context of justification. This is done by creating a context in which knowledge can be justifiably attributed without regard to the factors that might threaten its full attribution. In contextual epistemology, there is no full defence against skeptical scenarios (these scenarios are just properly ignored in most contexts), and in scientific experiment not every possible error is individually accounted for (because there is a reference to a context of "similar" and "related" experiments and "standard" methodologies, some possible errors are ignored).

This PhD project suggested and presented an analogous relation between "skepticism" in the theory of knowledge and "error" in the practice of experimental science. It was an investigation into both the consequences of the concept of knowledge and epistemic skepticism for the practice of experimental science and the consequences of error in experimental science for the theory of knowledge. The main focus was on the role of context in both fields of study, since it is supposed that context determines when knowledge can be correctly attributed in both fields.

This project offered not only an evaluating overview of the debates on contextual epistemology over the last two decades, but also contributed a specific perspective from epistemic theory on the practice of experimental science, thereby offering a practical case to matters that—traditionally—have always remained highly theoretical. Conversely, it looked to offer a deeply philosophical background of the concept of scientific knowledge in the practice of scientific experimentation (which is generally thought to generate knowledge). Furthermore, the thesis project included an extensive account of the semantic issues arising through a contextual approach to science and its related conceptual terminology. It was hoped that, together, these analyses would lead to a better understanding of the relationship between the theory of knowledge (epistemology) and the attribution of knowledge in experimental science.