Does Lakatos’ Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes Successfully Synthesise the Correct Parts of Popper’s and Kuhn’s Views?

In what follows I will argue that Lakatos’ Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes does successfully synthesise the correct parts of Popper and Kuhn’s conception of science.  I will outline and evaluate each of their views, presenting key criticisms and highlighting the parts Lakatos deems correct.  I will agree with Lakatos that these elements of Popper and Kuhn’s concepts are correct.

Popper was a rationalist and constructed a scientific method centred on falsification.  That is, a scientist is to make bold, conjectural hypotheses that go beyond the evidence, but are capable of facing possible refutation (via severe testing)1.  Popper termed this a ‘method of conjectures and refutations’.  This method was a response to the problem Popper believed overshadowed traditional attempts to ground the scientific method in experience4: the problem of induction.  As articulated by Hume, induction cannot be rationally justified.  If induction were to be rationally justified, then it would have to be so either by a deductive or inductive argument; there is no deductive argument and any inductive argument would simply result in an infinite regress.  Popper concluded that theories cannot be inferred from, or rationally justified by, observation statements.  He argued that we decide the world a prior and as such observation is selective1.  With his method of conjectures and refutations, instructing scientists to seek to disprove their theories, Popper essentially claimed to solve the problem of induction by turning induction into deduction, and as a consequence to have grounded his conception of science in objectivity and rationality.

Lakatos argues Popper’s view fails on two counts.  First, logically a theory can always be saved ad hoc (Duhem’s problem).  Popper conceives of a theory in its entirety, but in fact a theory comprises of the hypothesis under test, auxiliary hypotheses and background assumptions, and the observation.  If the scientist does not observe his prediction under test, then it is not necessarily because his prediction was wrong; it could be that an auxiliary hypothesis is wrong.  Popper’s view does not resemble the way in which working scientists actually accept or reject their scientific hypotheses; what one scientist regards as a refutation, another scientist might class as a mere anomaly4.  So when is it rational for a scientist to commit to their hypothesis?  Popper does not answer.  His central thesis is that the scientific attitude is a critical attitude; dogmatic belief is only useful as the raw materials for criticism1.  Thus Popper does not consider this question, he does not consider anomaly.  By removing induction and confirmation from the scientific method Popper fails to give an account of the extent to which it’s rational to rely upon scientific theory in practice4.  Further, I question whether Popper has evaded the problem of induction.  Popper asserts that hypotheses that survive refutations can be provisionally or tentatively accepted as corroborated.  However, the concept of one theory being better than another because it has withstood more severe or a greater number of refutations implies induction.

Popper’s account is attractive primarily because it attempts to derive a rational scientific method.  One’s instincts say that science is founded on rationality; certainly one feels that science be more rational and objective than ethics or psychology, for example.  A rational scientific method, Popper thought, would best aid the scientist in his search for truth.  It would therefore be a problem for Popper if his method in fact relied on induction (which cannot be rationally justified).  But it’s not necessarily a problem for working scientists or indeed science.  Induction has in one sense been justified on pragmatic grounds.  If every person you see jump off Blackpool Tower ends up splattered all over the pavement, it seems to me quite rational to fear the same thing will happen to yourself.  From Popper’s account Lakatos wants to take the critical attitude; the idea that scientists give up on their theories when they are disproved or useless.  As well as a sense of rational and objective enterprise associated with science (as opposed to pseudoscience).  I think this part of Popper’s conception is correct.  Scientist’s ought to strive for objectivity in their methodologies, and this, in most people’s minds, does demarcate science.  However, Lakatos has to answer the question Popper ignored: when is it rational for a scientist to commit to their hypothesis?

Lakatos’ second criticism revolves around the mismatch between Popper’s naïve falsificationism (as described above) and the history of science5.  Here Kuhn provides some insights.  Kuhn, using Popper as a starting point, argued that the problem with Popper’s conception of science was that he dealt only with the rare, exceptional periods of science6.  Kuhn grounds science in a framework of assumptions and background of unquestioned theory (or beliefs), which he calls a paradigm.  The paradigm defines a set of puzzles that scientists strive to solve during the course of normal science.  When the scientists come across a problem that can’t be solved, an anomaly, the paradigm may break down.  Science enters a phase of crisis and alternative paradigms compete.  Eventually one paradigm emerges as better able to solve the puzzles it poses and explain the deterioration of the previous accepted paradigm.  This is a paradigm shift2.  In a sense Kuhn is claiming that the scientist’s interpretation changes their experience4 because the world did not fundamentally change in the interim of a paradigm shift, it was just that in the first paradigm scientists saw the world one way and in the second paradigm they saw the same world another way.  This leaves Kuhn’s view in a precarious position because such reasoning would imply that there is no logical basis for a paradigm shift5.  This in turn would imply science is not rational or objective, which is not what Lakatos wants to say with his account.

From Kuhn’s view, Lakatos takes the idea of scientific paradigms and the idea that within a paradigm scientists are totally committed to their set of assumptions and world-view.  Again I think this is correct.  It is true that we have a scientific community, that scientists interact and that there is agreement, for instance, over what constitutes background theory or auxiliary hypotheses in a science experiment.  Also, it is true that important scientific discoveries have resulted from dogmatic commitment to a theory.  For example, the planet Neptune was discovered due to commitment to Newtonian mechanics despite prima facie refutation.

In sum, Popper and Kuhn contrast in the way they perceive the role of rationality in/as science and the relative importance they attribute to the history of science.  Popper sees the history of science as irrelevant and that commitment to theories is distinctly unscientific, rather the critical attitude and method of conjectures and refutations will best equip scientists in their search for truth. Kuhn uses the history of science as the starting point in forming a scientific method.  He argues commitment is the distinguishing feature of mature science, and the most progress is made when scientists try to reconcile the paradigm with nature.  The big picture of science is not rational; paradigm shifts do not follow logical reasoning.   Lakatos wants to reconcile the critical attitude encapsulated in falsification with the dogmatic attitude prominent in the history (and success) of science.

Lakatos thought that a view of science like Poppers, i.e. entirely concerned with the logical content of a hypothesis, was inadequate.  Then a hypothesis could be scientific despite there being no corroborating evidence, and pseudoscience despite there being a wealth of supporting evidence.  He thus interpreted Popper as contending empirical facts were irrelevant to the determination of scientific theory6.  Lakatos contends that not even the logical form of a theory can be rationally chosen without accounting for the research programme within which it is embedded. Instead of aiming at truth, Lakatos’ conception of science is characterised by progress in the context of history.  He modified Popper’s naïve falsificationism into sophisticated methodological falsificationism3.  He argued that one couldn’t demarcate something as scientific when considering only a single theory; instead a whole research programme was necessary.  That is, a series of theories that successively replace each other3.  This incorporates Kuhn’s emphasis on the history of science and the idea of a framework of theory.  Progress comes from each successive research programme (paradigm in Kuhn’s terminology) having greater empirical content than its processor.  Progress within the research programme comes from new theories, making bold predictions, which are confirmed.  Lakatos argues a research programme degenerates when theories are put forward simply to accommodate know facts6.  This incorporates the critical attitude of Popper’s account.  Lakatos advocates constructive criticism; a scientist can only replace a theory with a better one3, that is, the scientist cannot just discard a theory they need an alternative with which to replace it.  From the history of science, Lakatos also takes the notion that science has not been a smooth progression of theories embodying greater empirical content; instead there has been an intermittently progressive empirical shift3.  This allows for the dogmatic adherence present in working science as Lakatos takes the pressure off a new step producing an observable new fact immediately.

Lakatos has successfully incorporated Popper’s critical attitude, but accepted that, as seen in the history of science, sometimes commitment to a theory in the face of apparent refutation is good for scientific progress.  As a consequence he incorporates a limited dogmatism in allowing for intermittently progressive empirical shifts.  Lakatos’ answer to ‘when is it rational for a scientist to commit to their hypothesis?’ is its rational when commitment leads to scientific progress.  Lakatos marries the critical attitude with the dogmatic.  Further, Lakatos incorporates paradigms in the form of research programmes.

To conclude, Lakatos does successfully synthesis the correct parts of Popper and Kuhn’s view.  Popper’s naïve falsificationism is characterised by rationality; bold conjectures followed by severe test and possible refutation.  For Popper the critical attitude is the scientific attitude.  Kuhn’s conception of science is characterised by the solving of puzzles defined by a framework of assumptions each scientist is committed to.  Popper’s conception falls down because it is too critical for practical application by working scientists, and not akin to the history of science.  Kuhn’s conception falls down because it implies science is irrational, sociological, and subjective.  The correct parts of these conceptions are that scientists do operate in paradigms, that social historical context is relevant when evaluating theories, and that science should embody an objective methodology yet remain applicable to working scientists.  I agree with Lakatos that these are correct because scientist’s ought to strive for objectivity in their methodologies, it is true that there is agreement within the scientific community, and the history of science shows us that important scientific discoveries have resulted from dogmatic commitment to a theory.  Lakatos’ methodology of scientific research programmes encompasses these.  By making progress the defining characteristic of his concept, Lakatos successfully marries the critical and the dogmatic attitudes by arguing scientists should be critical but not necessarily give up their theories immediately because another theory with apparently greater empirical content emerges.  Scientists should be critical of refutations as much as conjectures.  He justifies dogmatism with the history of scientific progress, and his research programmes resemble Kuhn’s scientific paradigms.



1.Popper, K (1953). Science: Conjectures and Refutations. Lecture given at Peterhouse, Cambridge.

2.Kuhn, T. S. The Function of Dogma in Scientific Research. Chapter 2 in Problems in the Sociology of Science.

3.Lakatos, I (1978). Chapter 1: Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes. In Worrall & Currie, The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes. Cambridge University Press.

4.Blackburn, S (2005). The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Oxford University Press.

5.Honderich, T (2005). The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. Oxford University Press.

6. 31st October 2010.  From Science and Pseudo-Science, first published 2008.  Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.