Duhem – Quine Thesis

Quick Definition: A scientific test of a hypothesis is actually a test of multiple hypotheses


From Wikipedia:

The Duhem–Quine thesis (also called the Duhem–Quine problem, after Pierre Duhem and Willard Van Orman Quine) is that it is impossible to test a scientific hypothesis in isolation, because an empirical test of the hypothesis requires one or more background assumptions (also called auxiliary assumptions or auxiliary hypotheses). The hypothesis in question is by itself incapable of making predictions. Instead, deriving predictions from the hypothesis typically requires background assumptions that several other hypotheses are correct; for example, that an experiment worked as designed or that previous scientific knowledge was accurate. For instance, as evidence against the idea that the Earth is in motion, some people noted that birds did not get thrown off into the sky whenever they let go of a tree branch. Later theories of physics and astronomy could account for this fact while also positing a moving Earth.

Although a bundle of hypotheses (i.e. a hypothesis and its background assumptions) as a whole can be tested against the empirical world and be falsified if it fails the test, the Duhem–Quine thesis says it is impossible to isolate a single hypothesis in the bundle. One solution to the dilemma thus facing scientists is that when we have rational reasons to accept the background assumptions as true (e.g. scientific theories via evidence) we will have rational—albeit nonconclusive—reasons for thinking that the theory tested is probably wrong if the empirical test fails.


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