Philosophers, historians and scientists will gather at the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood campus this weekend to discuss a frequently controversial question: what are the standards that qualify an observation as scientific evidence?
Scientists' insights into the universe regularly reach beyond their ability to establish new ideas directly through experimentation, and that can make the question of proof a particularly tricky one, notes Peter Achinstein, professor of philosophy in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins and organizer of the upcoming conference.
"The concern isn't so much how the scientist got the idea for his hypothesis, but how he decides what will be the most convincing evidence he can use on skeptics," said Achinstein. "Fundamentally, it's a problem of, 'Why should other people believe what I'm saying?'"
Achinstein, author of The Book of Evidence, cited Isaac Newton, one of history's most famous scientists, as an example. Newton's groundbreaking law of gravity asserted that it was a force exerted by every mass on every other mass throughout the universe.
The provocative idea was impossible to directly test or verify, so Newton established four rules that emphasized the scientist's role as someone who draws reasoned conclusions from observations of natural phenomena. If a theory could be inferred from the observed phenomena using Newton's rules, then the theory was acceptable science.
The conference on scientific evidence begins at 7:30 p.m. on April 11 in the Sherwood Room of Levering Hall on Johns Hopkins' Homewood campus. Speakers from Johns Hopkins, Duke University, the University of Alabama, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Texas at Austin, Gettysburg College, Rice University, and Virginia Poltyechnic Institute will discuss both historical and contemporary aspects of scientific evidence.
Achinstein plans to publish the proceedings of the conference, which is sponsored by the Center for History and Philosophy of Science at Johns Hopkins.
For more on the conference schedule, see www.jhu.edu/~phil/center/conference.html.
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