§22. The Uncertainty of Scientific Results


120. It is a great mistake to suppose that the mind of the active scientist is filled with propositions which, if not proved beyond all reasonable cavil, are at least extremely probable. On the contrary, he entertains hypotheses which are almost wildly incredible, and treats them with respect for the time being. Why does he do this? Simply because any scientific proposition whatever is always liable to be refuted and dropped at short notice. A hypothesis is something which looks as if it might be true and were true, and which is capable of verification or refutation by comparison with facts. The best hypothesis, in the sense of the one most recommending itself to the inquirer, is the one which can be the most readily refuted if it is false. This far outweighs the trifling merit of being likely. For after all, what is a likely hypothesis? It is one which falls in with our preconceived ideas. But these may be wrong. Their errors are just what the scientific man is out gunning for more particularly. But if a hypothesis can quickly and easily be cleared away so as to go toward leaving the field free for the main struggle, this is an immense advantage.

121. Retroduction goes upon the hope that there is sufficient affinity between the reasoner's mind and nature's to render guessing not altogether hopeless, provided each guess is checked by comparison with observation. It is true that agreement does not show the guess is right; but if it is wrong it must ultimately get found out. The effort should therefore be to make each hypothesis, which is practically no more than a question, as near an even bet as possible.


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