Towards a typology of experimental errors: An epistemological view

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This paper is concerned with the problem of experimental error. The prevalent view that experimental errors can be dismissed as a tiresome but trivial blemish on the method of experimentation is criticized. It is stressed that the occurrence of errors in experiments constitutes a permanent feature of the attempt to test theories in the physical world, and this feature deserves proper attention. It is suggested that a classification of types of experimental error may be useful as a heuristic device in studying the nature of these errors. However, the standard classification of systematic and random errors is mathematically based does not focus on the causes of the errors, their origins, or the contexts in which they arise. A new typology of experimental errors is therefore proposed whose criterion is epistemological. This typology reflects the various stages that can be discerned in the execution of an experiment, each stage constituting a category of a certain type of experimental error. The proposed classification consists of four categories which are illustrated by historical cases.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)469-504
Number of pages36
JournalStudies in History and Philosophy of Science
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 1989

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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