Comparativist Philosophy of Science and Population Viability Assessment in Biology: Helping Resolve Scientific Controversy

Philosophy of Science 73 (5):817-828 (2006)
Abstract
Comparing alternative scientific theories obviously is relevant to theory assessment, but are comparativists (like Laudan) correct when they also make it necessary? This paper argues that they are not. Defining rationality solely in terms of theories' comparative problem-solving strengths, comparativist philosophers of science like Laudan subscribe to what I call the irrelevance claim (IC) and the necessity claim (NC). According to IC, a scientific theory's being well or poorly confirmed is "irrelevant" to its acceptance; NC is the claim that "all evaluations of research traditions and theories must be made within a comparative context," how any theory "compares with its competitors" (Laudan 1977, 21, 120). Using current competing theories (T1 and T2) of population viability assessment (PVA) for the Florida panther, the paper investigates IC/NC. In part because dominant T2 panther biologists accept IC/NC (which T1 theorists reject), the paper argues that they appear both to have accepted flawed T2 and to have contributed to flawed panther science and policy. Correcting Laudan's Comparativist Philosophy of Science (LCPS), underlying the T1-versus-T2 debate, thus may hold promise for helping resolve both the scientific and policy controversy over panther PVA.
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