Popper Prize 2016

The decision of the Co-Chief-Editors of the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science is that the Sir Karl Popper Prize for 2016 should be awarded jointly to Elizabeth Irvine for her paper ‘Model-Based Theorizing in Cognitive Neuroscience’ (Br J Philos Sci, 2016, 67, pp. 143–68) and Eran Tal for his paper ‘Making Time: A Study in the Epistemology of Measurement’ (Br J Philos Sci, 2016, 67, pp. 297–335).

The Sir Karl Popper Essay Prize is awarded for the best of those papers appearing in the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science. It is awarded on the basis of the judgement of the Editors of the Journal (in liaison with the BSPS Committee, as the Editors see fit) from papers appearing in that year’s volume of the Journal.

Co-Editors-in-Chief Citation

In her paper ‘Model-Based Theorizing in Cognitive Neuroscience’, Elizabeth Irvine draws on the example of computational templates in cognitive neuroscience to take the debate over the role of models in science in a new direction. Specifically, she argues that via such templates, models in cognitive neuroscience are able to incorporate often meager background empirical and theoretical knowledge about a given target system into the relevant theoretical structure, with ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ plausibility constraints invoked to ensure representational adequacy. These models then enable theoretical inferences to be made about the target system and, Irvine maintains, represent this system directly, even if only partially. As the models are iteratively refined, they gain representational capacity, becoming less generic and more detailed in relevant respects and with regard to relevant purposes. Representation, in this context, is partial, purpose-relative, and tentative, and Irvine concludes by suggesting how her core idea could be extended to other examples of scientific practice. Her paper thus further advances the debate over models and representation in science by offering a novel philosophical framework while also being rooted firmly in the details of scientific practice.

Eran Tal’s ‘Making Time: A Study in the Epistemology of Measurement’ is a timely and important contribution to the burgeoning field of history and philosophy of metrology. By looking in detail at the scientific practice behind the standard measurement of time (coordinated universal time or UTC), the article provides an insightful analysis of how standardization produces reliable knowledge. Tal offers a novel model-based account of the practice of standardization. This account promises to overcome the shortcomings of two well-entrenched epistemological views on measurement: conventionalism and constructivism. Tal’s model-based account provides a novel explanation of the stability of measurement standards, a stability which—he argues—is ultimately down to modelling assumptions, not to conventions or social-historical factors. As such, the model-based account is capable of delivering genuine and reliable empirical knowledge. Tal’s contribution shows the good that comes from bringing scientific practice to bear on central questions in philosophy of science. Even more so, it shows how philosophy of science informed by scientific practice feeds into wider debates about the nature of scientific knowledge. Thus, Tal’s article demonstrates how history and philosophy of science can contribute to theories of knowledge in important and often unexpected ways.

In the view of the Co-Chief-Editors, both these papers are worthy co-recipients of the 2016 Popper Prize by bringing scientific practice to bear on major issues in the field and thereby advancing the relevant debates in novel and important ways.

Prof. Steven French and Prof. Michela Massimi