Scientific generalisations: what’s so good about missing out all the differences?

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Professor Nancy Cartwright

Joint Lecture with the Royal Institute of Philosophy

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Professor Nancy Cartwright discusses how we come by general truths in science – not by generalising – and explores some of the pitfalls in getting back down to the concrete, especially when we want to use science to build a laser or a better social policy.

Scientific enquiry is about making generalisations, we are told; about making things look alike: a few short, sharp general claims to deal with a wealth of different cases. Yet things, as they appear, are not much the same. We get them to look that way by blurring the details, by distorting a bit – or more than a bit, by ignoring all the instances that don’t fit in the box. The trick is often to use highly abstract concepts in our general claims, so abstract they mean a million different things in a million different contexts. So using science to control the concrete is no straightforward matter: a matter indeed that seems to escape the scientific method.


Professor Nancy Cartwright
Professor of Philosophy at the Department of Philosophy, University of Durham and at the University of California, San Diego

Lecture report