Experiment, observation and the confirmation of laws

Analysis 71 (2):222-232 (2011)
It is customary to distinguish experimental from purely observational sciences. The former include physics and molecular biology, the latter astronomy and palaeontology. Experiments involve actively intervening in the course of nature, as opposed to observing events that would have happened anyway. When a molecular biologist inserts viral DNA into a bacterium in his laboratory, this is an experiment; but when an astronomer points his telescope at the heavens, this is an observation. Without the biologist’s handiwork the bacterium would never have contained foreign DNA; but the planets would have continued orbiting the sun whether or not the astronomer had directed his telescope skyward. The observational/experimental distinction would probably be difficult to make precise 1, as the notion of an ‘intervention’ is not easily defined, but it is intuitively fairly clear, and is frequently invoked by scientists and historians of science. Experimentation, or ‘putting questions to nature’, is often cited as a hallmark of the modern scientific method, something that permitted the enormous advances of the last 350 years. And it is sometimes said that the social sciences lag behind the natural because controlled experiments cannot be done so readily in the former. Moreover in certain sciences, e.g. epidemiology, students are explicitly taught that experimental data is preferable to observational data, particularly for doing causal inference. So the distinction between observational and experimental science has quite wide currency, and is often regarded as methodologically significant. Surprisingly, mainstream philosophy of science has had rather little to say about the observational/experimental distinction. 2 For example, discussions of confirmation usually invoke a notion of ‘evidence’, to be contrasted with ‘theory’ or ‘hypothesis’; the aim is to understand how the evidence bears on the hypothesis. But whether this ‘evidence’ comes from observation or experiment generally plays no role in the discussion; this is true …
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References found in this work BETA
I. J. Good (1967). The White Shoe is a Red Herring. British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 17 (4):322.

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Lindell Bromham (2016). Testing Hypotheses in Macroevolution. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 55:47-59.

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