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68. Statistical Explanation

CHRISTOPHER READ HITCHCOCK and WESLEY C. SALMON


Subject Philosophy

Key-Topics explanation, science

DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631230205.2001.00071.x


Extract

Generally speaking, scientific explanation has been a topic of lively discussion in twentieth-century philosophy of science; philosophers of science have endeavored to characterize rigorously a number of different types of explanation to be found in the various fields of scientific research. Given the indispensability of statistical concepts and techniques in virtually every branch of modern science, it is natural to ask whether some scientific explanations are essentially statistical or probabilistic in character. The answer would seem to be yes. For example, we can explain why atoms of carbon 14 have a 1/4 probability of surviving for 11,460 years because the half-life of that species is 5,730 years. As we shall see, explanations of this type are not especially problematic. As another example, we might explain why a particular weed withered by citing the fact that it received a dose of a herbicide, even though we know that the herbicide is not invariably effective. This means that the withering is related probabilistically to the herbicide treatment but is not necessitated by it. Explanations of this kind, by contrast, lead to severe difficulties. Carl G. Hempel's (1965) is the locus classicus for discussions of scientific explanation in the latter part of the twentieth century. This work contains a profound investigation of the existence and nature of statistical explanation ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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