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Cover Research Methods in the Social Sciences: An A-Z of key concepts

Scientific Realism  

Heikki Patomäki

This chapter addresses scientific realism. After the heyday of empiricism in the interwar period and its immediate aftermath, many critical reactions to empiricism seemed to suggest scientific realism. It was widely agreed that scientific theories make references to things that cannot be directly observed (or at least seen), and thus emerged the issue of the status of non-observables. As scientific realism became increasingly dominant, new philosophical stances such as Bas C. van Fraassen’s constructive empiricism were often defined in opposition to it. Van Fraassen understands scientific realism as a claim that science aims to give us, in its theories, a literally true story of what the world is like; and acceptance of a scientific theory involves the belief that it is true. More in line with established forms of scientific realism, Ilkka Niiniluoto talks about verisimilitude, or truth-likeness. This concept is supposed to avoid the consequences of claiming to have access to the truth itself. The chapter then considers how the social sciences seem to pose difficulties for scientific realism.