Refutation Watch

Refutation Watch


Retraction Watch is profiled in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education (currently paywalled). The site keeps track of retractions in scientific research, with an emphasis on retractions owed to scientific misconduct.

Its founders, a pair of veteran science writers, were not just interested in big-ticket fraud cases; they were determined to apply scrutiny to scientific screwups of all kinds, including the obscure ones that tended to slip through the cracks…. Over the last five years, [Adam] Marcus and his partner, Ivan Oransky [the site’s founders], have gotten under the skin of plenty of researchers and journal editors by turning retraction-spotting into a spectator sport. In the process they have earned a few enemies — along with many fans, including a few powerful grantmakers…. 

The blog proved difficult to ignore. The same irreverent tone that annoyed some readers drew in others. Mr. Marcus and Dr. Oransky mocked journals for their opaque retraction notices, but they also cheered authors and editors who were forthcoming about their mistakes. And the reporting was solid.

Above all, it was fun to read. Retraction Watch’s writers named names. They showed faces. They made puns. They translated journal jargon for lay readers: In their very first post, they referred to an “expression of concern” as “a Britishism that might be better expressed as ‘Holy shit!’”

Retraction Watch recently received $700,000 in grants to expand its work. Marcus and Oransky would ultimately like “to build a comprehensive database of retractions that researchers can check before they cite an article.”

Some philosophers think of philosophy as analogous to scientific inquiry, which got me thinking about whether philosophy needs a similar service. Call it “Refutation Watch.” Such a site could perform multiple functions, for instance:

  • keep track of attempted and successful refutations of specific and narrow philosophical theses (with, say, just one-line descriptions and links to the relevant works)
  • highlight when philosophers change their minds on a particular philosophical theses
  • expose academic misconduct relevant to the assessment of philosophical conclusions (e.g., a failure to take into account significant or recent work relevant to the thesis under consideration)

Would the existence of such a service improve philosophy? What else could it do? And who would do it?

Monty Python Foot Phi

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