Foresight in Scientific Method

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We may ask two questions about foresight in relation to science: (1) whether science can foretell future events, and (2) whether we can foretell the future of science itself. Regarding the first question, many philosophers and scientists (including Lakatos and Popper) have especially valued the ability of science to make novel predictions, sometimes to the point of regarding it as the defining characteristic of science. I will argue that the acknowledged ability of modern science to make successful predictions is only as valuable as its ability to organise and explain previously known phenomena. Regarding the second question, I will argue that scientists and others have been very unsuccessful in predicting the course of the development of science itself. The uncertainty about the staying power of scientific theories, even predictively successful ones, actually raises a serious question about the value of predictive success. The final lesson from these reflections is one of humility: true foresight consists in recognising the limits of our foresight.


Hasok Chang is Hans Rausing Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. Previously he taught for 15 years at University College London, after receiving his PhD in Philosophy at Stanford University following an undergraduate degree at the California Institute of Technology. He is the author of Is Water H2O ? Evidence, Realism and Pluralism (Springer, 2012), and Inventing Temperature: Measurement and Scientific Progress (Oxford University Press, 2004), which was a joint winner of the 2006 Lakatos Award. He is also co-editor (with Catherine Jackson) of An Element of Controversy: The Life of Chlorine in Science, Medicine, Technology and War (British Society for the History of Science, 2007), a collection of original work by undergraduate students at University College London. He is a co-founder of the Society for Philosophy of Science in Practice (SPSP), and the International Committee for Integrated History and Philosophy of Science. Currently he is the President of the British Society for this History of Science.