This is a guest blog post by Dr Peter Vickers, Durham University, Principal Investigator for Evaluating Scientific Realism, Exploratory Award

In 2012 I headed an exciting pilot project as part of the new AHRC Science in Culture Theme Exploratory Award scheme, entitled ‘Evaluating scientific realism: a new generation of historical case studies’ (see here for details). The scheme was perfect for the project I had in mind. The scientific realism debate is a major debate in philosophy of science, a debate concerning how much trust we can put in the (sometimes bizarre) claims made by our current scientific theories given the fact that, when one looks to the history of science, we have often had confidence in theories which were later found to be substantially misguided. But despite the long history of this debate, it has long been conducted in the light of only a few major case studies from the history of science (phlogiston, caloric, the luminiferous aether). What I felt needed to be explored was the possibility that there are many examples in the history of science which could have a major bearing on this debate, but which are currently completely unknown within the philosophical community.

In fact this turned out to be the case: there are many examples in the history of science which at least seem to be highly relevant for that philosophical debate, and which are waiting to be explored in detail. The pilot project resulted in a publication in the journal Philosophy of Science entitled ‘A Confrontation of Convergent Realism’ (see here), which begins with a list of twenty historical case studies which either warrant further investigation or have not been investigated at all as part of the scientific realism debate. With this publication in place the stage was set for a major follow-up project, where at least some of these historical cases would be properly investigated.

For the follow-up project I teamed up with Timothy Lyons, based at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) (see here). Much of my work during the pilot project was inspired by Tim’s own work (e.g. here) – including a list of historical cases he had already put together in the very same spirit as the pilot project. It was fantastic that the AHRC decided to trial a policy to allow international researchers to act as Co-Investigators on research grants in 2013. I contacted Tim about this opportunity and he was very enthusiastic. Making use of some seedcorn funding from Durham University I was able to fly out to Indianapolis to meet with Tim and some of the other potential collaborators from IUPUI, Indiana (Bloomington), and Purdue (Lafayette). We were able to spend the time visiting potential venues for project events, and drafting what struck both of us as a very important project.

With the development of research in philosophy, sometimes there just seems to be ‘something in the air’. Before our project had even begun, Thomas Pashby had already published a new historical case study for the realism debate: the case of Dirac’s prediction of the positron (see here). And at the major international conference ‘New Thinking about Scientific Realism’ (August 2014 – see here), several papers were devoted to new historical case studies for the debate. Thus as I write there is quite some momentum behind the project. Needless to say, we are very excited to see what will develop over the next three years.

Further information about the AHRC funded follow-on project ‘Contemporary Scientific Realism and the Challenge from the History of Science’, which commenced on 1st August 2014 is available on the project website, found here.

This is one of a series of guest blog posts written by AHRC Science in Culture Theme Award Holders. The Science in Culture Theme is a key area of AHRC Funding and supports projects committed to developing reciprocal relationships between scientists and arts and humanities researchers. More information about Peter Vickers’ Exploratory Award ‘Evaluating Scientific Realism’ is available here.

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