Hostname: page-component-cd4964975-96cn4 Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2023-04-01T04:44:52.009Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "useRatesEcommerce": false } hasContentIssue true

A Pragmatist Theory of Evidence

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2022


Two approaches to evidential reasoning compete in the biomedical and social sciences: the experimental and the pragmatist. Whereas experimentalism has received considerable philosophical analysis and support since the times of Bacon and Mill (and continues to enjoy attention and support in very recent work on causation and evidence), pragmatism about evidence has been neither articulated nor defended. The overall aim is to fill this gap and develop a theory that articulates the latter. The main ideas of the theory will be illustrated and supported by a case study on the smoking/lung cancer controversy in the 1950s.

Research Article
Copyright © The Philosophy of Science Association

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


A previous draft of this paper was discussed with the Centre for Humanities Engaging Science and Society (CHESS) research group at Durham University and improved considerably. Thanks also to Bert Leuridan for comments. Financial support from projects FFI2008-01580/Consolider Ingenio CSD2009-0056 and FFI2011-23267 of the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation is gratefully acknowledged.


Ayer, Alfred. 1936/1936. Language, Truth and Logic. Repr. London: Penguin.Google Scholar
Biddle, Justin. 2007. “Lessons from the Vioxx Debacle: What the Privatization of Science Can Teach Us about Social Epistemology.” Social Epistemology 21 (1): 2139.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Borgerson, Kirstin. 2009. “Valuing Evidence: Bias and the Evidence Hierarchy of Evidence-Based Medicine.” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 52 (2): 218–33.Google ScholarPubMed
Brandom, Robert. 1994. Making It Explicit: Reasoning, Representing, and Discursive Commitment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
Cartwright, Nancy. 1999. The Dappled World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Cartwright, Nancy 2007. “Are RCTs the Gold Standard?BioSocieties 2 (2): 1120.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Cornfield, Jerome, Haenszel, William, Hammond, Cuyler, Lilienfield, Abraham, Shimkin, Michael, and Wynder, Ernst. 1959. “Smoking and Lung Cancer: Recent Evidence and a Discussion of Some Questions.” Journal of the National Cancer Institute 22:173203.Google Scholar
Doll, Richard. 1953. “Bronchial Carcinoma: Incidence and Aetiology.” British Medical Journal 2 (4836): 585–90.Google ScholarPubMed
Doll, Richard, and Hill, Austin Bradford. 1956. “Lung Cancer and Other Causes of Death in Relation to Smoking: A Second Report on the Mortality of British Doctors.” British Medical Journal 2 (5001): 1071–81.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Eysenck, Hans, Tarrant, Mollie, Woolf, Myra, and England, L.. 1960. “Smoking and Personality.” British Medical Journal 1 (5184): 1456–60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Fisher, Ronald A. 1958. “Cancer and Smoking.” Nature 182:596.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Gilliam, Alexander. 1955. “Trends of Mortality Attributed to Carcinoma of the Lung: Possible Effects of Faulty Certification of Deaths due to Other Respiratory Diseases.” Cancer 8:1130–36.3.0.CO;2-V>CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Glymour, Clark. 1980. “Discussion: Hypothetico-Deductivism Is Hopeless.” Philosophy of Science 47:322–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Goldman, Alvin. 1976. “Discrimination and Perceptual Knowledge.” Journal of Philosophy 73 (20): 771–91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hardwig, John. 1991. “The Role of Trust in Knowledge.” Journal of Philosophy 88 (12): 693708.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Heckman, James. 1996. “Randomization as an Instrumental Variable.” Review of Economics and Statistics 78 (2): 336–41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hempel, Carl. 1966. The Philosophy of Natural Science. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.Google Scholar
Hoover, Kevin. 2001. Causality in Macroeconomics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hoover, Kevin 2003. “Nonstationary Time-Series, Cointegration, and the Principle of the Common Cause.” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 54:527–51.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
IARC. 2006. IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans: Preamble. Lyon: International Agency for Research on Cancer.Google Scholar
Ioannidis, John. 2005. “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False.” PLoS Medicine 2 (8): e124.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
La Caze, Adam. 2011. “The Role of Basic Science in Evidence-Based Medicine.” Biology and Philosophy 26 (1): 8198.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Lucas, Robert. 1976. “Economic Policy Evaluation: A Critique.” Carnegie-Rochester Series on Public Policy 1:1946.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Mackie, John. 1980. The Cement of the Universe: A Study of Causation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Mayo, Deborah. 1996. Error and the Growth of Experimental Knowledge. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Norton, John. 2003. “A Material Theory of Induction.” Philosophy of Science 70 (4): 647–70.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Norton, John 2011. “Challenges to Bayesian Confirmation Theory.” In Philosophy of Statistics, ed. Bandyopadhyay, P. and Forster, M.. Dordrecht: Elsevier.Google Scholar
Oreskes, Naomi, and Conway, Erik. 2010. Merchants of Doubt. New York: Bloomsbury.Google ScholarPubMed
Parascandola, Mark. 2004. “Two Approaches to Etiology: The Debate over Smoking and Lung Cancer in the 1950s.” Endeavour 28 (2): 8186.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Pearl, Judea. 2000. Causality: Models, Reasoning, and Inference. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Popper, Karl. 1963. Conjectures and Refutations. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
Reiss, Julian. 2005. “Causal Instrumental Variables and Interventions.” Philosophy of Science 72 (Proceedings): 964–76.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Reiss, Julian 2007. “Time Series, Nonsense Correlations and the Principle of the Common Cause.” In Causality and Probability in the Sciences, ed. Russo, F. and Williamson, J., 179–96. London: College Publications.Google Scholar
Williamson, J. 2008. Error in Economics: Towards a More Evidence-Based Methodology. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
Williamson, J. 2009a. “Causation in the Social Sciences: Evidence, Inference, Purpose.” Philosophy of the Social Sciences 39 (1): 2040.Google Scholar
Williamson, J. 2009b. “Counterfactuals, Thought Experiments and Singular Causal Analysis in History.” Philosophy of Science 76:712–23.Google Scholar
Williamson, J. 2012a. “Causation in the Sciences: An Inferentialist Account.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Biology and Biomedical Science 43 (4): 769–77.Google Scholar
Williamson, J. 2012b. “Counterfactuals.” In Oxford Handbook of the Philosophy of Social Science, ed. Kincaid, H., 154–83. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Kincaid, H. 2014. “Struggling over the Soul of Economics: Objectivity versus Expertise.” In Experts and Consensus in Social Science, ed. Martini, C. and Boumans, M.. Cham: Springer.Google Scholar
Rescher, Nicholas. 1958. “A Theory of Evidence.” Philosophy of Science 25 (1): 8394.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Russo, Federica, and Williamson, Jon. 2007. “Interpreting Causality in the Health Sciences.” International Studies in the Philosophy of Science 21 (2): 157–70.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Salmon, Wesley. 1975. “Confirmation and Relevance.” In Induction, Probability, and Confirmation, ed. Maxwell, G. and Anderson, R., 336. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
Sober, Elliott. 2001. “Venetian Sea Levels, British Bread Prices, and the Principle of the Common Cause.” British Journal for the Philosophy of Science 52:331–46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Spirtes, Peter, Glymour, Clark, and Scheines, Richard. 2000. Causation, Prediction, and Search. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
Stanford, P. Kyle. 2006. Exceeding Our Grasp: Science, History, and the Problem of Unconceived Alternatives. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Vandenbroucke, Jan P. 1989. “Those Who Were Wrong.” American Journal of Epidemiology 130 (1): 35.CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed
Williams, Michael. 2001. Problems of Knowledge. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
Woodward, James. 2003. Making Things Happen. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar