'Through thousands of errors we reach the truth'—but how? On the epistemic roles of error in scientific practice

This essay is concerned with the epistemic roles of error in scientific practice. Usually, error is regarded as something negative, as an impediment or obstacle for the advancement of science. However, we also frequently say that we are learning from error. This common expression suggests that the role of error is not—at least not always—negative but that errors can make a fruitful contribution to the scientific enterprise. My paper explores the latter possibility. Can errors play an epistemically productive role in scientific research? The paper begins with a review of several twentieth-century approaches to error and the various agendas behind them. It is shown that only very few scholars have considered whether errors can be productive. The main part of the paper examines a concrete debate in early nineteenth-century microscopy and analyses how the microscopists coped with the problem of error. Drawing on this material, the article offers some terminological clarifications of the common notion ‘learning from error’. The conclusion argues that error can indeed play epistemically productive roles in scientific practice.Keywords: Error; Nineteenth-century microscopic anatomy
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DOI 10.1016/j.shpsa.2005.06.011
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References found in this work BETA
Douglas Allchin (2001). Error Types. Perspectives on Science 9 (1):38-58.
Giora Hon (1989). Towards a Typology of Experimental Errors: An Epistemological View. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 20 (4):469-504.

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Kathrin Friedrich (2013). Digital ‘Faces’ of Synthetic Biology. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences 44 (2):217-224.

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