Analysis 62 (4):281–285 (2002)
Among the niftiest arguments for scientific anti-realism is the ‘pessimistic induction’ (also sometimes called ‘the disastrous historical meta-induction’). Although various versions of this argument differ in their details (see, for example, Poincare 1952: 160, Putnam 1978: 25, and Laudan 1981), the argument generally begins by recalling the many scientific theories that posit unobservable entities and that at one time or another were widely accepted. The anti-realist then argues that when these old theories were accepted, the evidence for them was quite persuasive – roughly as compelling as our current evidence is for our best scientific theories positing various unobservable entities. Nevertheless, the anti-realist argues, most of these old theories turned out to be incorrect in the unobservables they posited. Therefore, the anti-realist concludes that with regard to the theories we currently accept, we should believe that probably, most of them are likewise incorrect in the unobservable entities they posit. (This argument appeals to what our best current theories say about unobservables in order to show that the entities posited by some earlier theory are not real. So the argument takes the form of a reductio of the view that the apparent success of some scientific theory justifies our believing in its accuracy regarding unobservables.) Of course, this argument has been criticized on many grounds. Some have argued, for instance, that the scientific theories we currently accept are much better supported than were earlier scientific theories at the time they were accepted. In addition, some have argued that many scientific theories accepted justly in the past were in fact accurate..
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