What Was Perrin's Real Achievement?

Bas C. van Fraassen

in Philosophy of Science Matters

Published in print March 2011 | ISBN: 9780199738625
Published online May 2011 | e-ISBN: 9780199894642 | DOI:
What Was Perrin's Real Achievement?

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The story of how Perrin's experimental work established the reality of atoms and molecules has been a staple in (realist) philosophy of science writings (Wesley Salmon, Clark Glymour, Penelope Maddy, and so on). With this understanding, the only question is how, and by how much, Perrin's results confirmed the hypothesis that molecules are real. Peter Achinstein produced the most detailed reconstruction, in which the prior probability of that hypothesis was at least ½, and after Perrin's work, the posterior probability was greater than ½. This chapter argues that how Perrin's story is told distorts both what the work was and the significance of his achievement. Perrin completed a century-long process of empirical grounding for the classical kinetic theory. The concept of empirical grounding is explored and morals are drawn for how theories can be or fail to be empirically grounded, while the obsessive focus on justification, confirmation, and “weight of evidence” was inappropriate and unilluminating.

Keywords: Perrin; scientific realism; confirmation; empirical grounding; kinetic theory; models; Hermann Weyl; Clark Glymour; concordance; bootstrap method; coordination; measurement

Chapter.  6568 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Philosophy of Science

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