Version: v1, Published online: 1998
Retrieved September 24, 2023, from https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/observation/v-1
Observation is of undeniable importance in the empirical sciences. As the source of information from the world itself, observation has the role of both motivating and testing theories. Playing this role requires more than just opening our eyes and letting nature act upon us. It requires a careful attention to the information conveyed from the world so that an observation is meaningful. Scientific observation, in other words, is more than a physical act of sensation; it must be an epistemic act as well, with sufficient meaning and credibility to contribute to knowledge. A report of an observation, therefore, must be more than a ‘Yes, I see’. It must describe just what is seen, ‘I see that ‘.
This obligation to make observation relevant to theory suggests that there is an essential influence of background theories on the observations themselves. The theories we believe or wish to test tell us which observations to make. And describing the results of observations, that is, bringing out their informational content, will always be done in the language of the conceptual and theoretical system already in place. For these reasons, observation is said to be indelibly theory-laden. And the influence of background beliefs is even greater in cases of indirect observation where machines, like microscopes and particle detectors, are used to produce images of the objects of observation. Here, the reliability of the machines, and hence the credibility of the observation, must be based on a theoretical understanding of the interactions that are the links in the chain of information.
The influence of theory on observation is often seen as a threat to the objectivity of the process of testing and verification of theories, and hence of science in general. If theories are allowed to, indeed required to, select their own evidence and then to give meaning and credibility to the observations, the testing process seems to be unavoidably circular and self-serving. Observation that is theory-laden would guarantee success. But a look at the history of science shows that it does not. There are plenty of cases of observations that are used to disconfirm theories or at least undermine the theorist’s confidence. Perhaps there is a kind of observation that is not influenced by scientific theory and can serve as a common, objective source of information to put theories to a rigorous and meaningful test. Or perhaps all scientific observation does bear the influence of background scientific theories, but not necessarily of the theory the observation is being used to test. This independence between the theories that support an observation and the theory for which the observation serves as evidence can break the circle in the process of testing and perhaps restore objectivity.
Kosso, Peter. Observation, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-Q076-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, https://www.rep.routledge.com/articles/thematic/observation/v-1.
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