Is the History of Science the Wasteland of False Theories?

Stathis Psillos
University of Athens
Imagine you live in 1823 and you are about to design an advanced course on the theory of heat. About fifty years ago, Lavoisier and Laplace had posited caloric as a material substance—an indestructible fluid of fine particles—which was taken to be the cause of heat and in particular, the cause of the rise of temperature of a body, by being absorbed by the body. No doubt, you rely on the best available theory, which is the caloric theory. In particular, meticulous and knowledgeable as you are, you rely on the best of the best: Laplace’s advanced account of the caloric theory of heat, with all its sophistication, detail and predictive might. You really believe that the best science teaching should be based on the best theories that are available. But you also believe that the best theory that is available is not really the best unless it has a claim to truth (or truthlikeness, or partial truth and the like). For what is the point of teaching a theory about the deep structure of the world unless it does say something or other about this deep structure? The course goes really well. Your notes are impressive. They are soon turned into a textbook with lots of explanatory detail and fancy calculations. Alas! The world does not co-operate. There are no calorific particles among the things there are in it. Heat is destroyed when work is produced. The advanced theory is challenged by alternative theories, anomalies and failed predictions. There is agony, but in your lifetime, the caloric theory gets superseded and is left discredited in the wasteland of false theories. Decades come by. You are not around anymore. Your grandchildren go to school and..
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