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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Anon
Anon
6 years ago

I think it’s a good idea. Sometimes refutations are given and nobody (particularly the authors purportedly refuted) ever engage with them. It’s unconscionable for a literature to go on its merry way while ignoring refutations, and this happens in philosophy all too often.Report

Dale Miller
6 years ago

How else are we to know when someone falsifies the data in a thought experiment?Report

Alan White
Alan White
6 years ago

Dale (if I may)–is that a thought experiment?Report

Tom
Tom
6 years ago

I suppose you’d need one organization to track Hilary Putnam’s changes of mind and one for everybody else.Report

Sylvia
6 years ago

Of course, cases of plagiarism could be documented in a similar way as retraction watch does for scientific publications.
On the other hand, where is the Archimedean point from which to decide that a philosophical refutation is successful?
It can be useful to keep track of attempted refutations and attempted reconciliations, but that seems to be a huge undertaking, and isn’t that know as ‘history of philosophy’?Report

PeterJ
6 years ago

I’d agree with Sylvia. Philosophy would be the task of keeping track of refutations, and if we need an organisation to do it for us then we are in trouble. In philosophy we do not have any difficulty re-running experiments in order to test results so the situtation does not seem equivalent. We’d be keeping track of changing opinions, while any actual results would be perennial and not subject to change.Report