C. S. Peirce: 10 Sept, 1839-19 April, 1914
Today is C.S. Peirce’s birthday. I hadn’t blogged him before, but he’s one of my all time heroes. You should read him: he’s a treasure chest on essentially any topic. I’ll blog the main sections of a (2005) paper over the next few days. It’s written for a very general philosophical audience; the statistical parts are pretty informal. Happy birthday Peirce.
Peircean Induction and the Error-Correcting Thesis
Deborah G. Mayo
Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society: A Quarterly Journal in American Philosophy, Volume 41, Number 2, 2005, pp. 299-319
Peirce’s philosophy of inductive inference in science is based on the idea that what permits us to make progress in science, what allows our knowledge to grow, is the fact that science uses methods that are self-correcting or error-correcting:
Induction is the experimental testing of a theory. The justification of it is that, although the conclusion at any stage of the investigation may be more or less erroneous, yet the further application of the same method must correct the error. (5.145)
Inductive methods—understood as methods of experimental testing—are justified to the extent that they are error-correcting methods. We may call this Peirce’s error-correcting or self-correcting thesis (SCT):
Self-Correcting Thesis SCT: methods for inductive inference in science are error correcting; the justification for inductive methods of experimental testing in science is that they are self-correcting.
Peirce’s SCT has been a source of fascination and frustration. By and large, critics and followers alike have denied that Peirce can sustain his SCT as a way to justify scientific induction: “No part of Peirce’s philosophy of science has been more severely criticized, even by his most sympathetic commentators, than this attempted validation of inductive methodology on the basis of its purported self-correctiveness” (Rescher 1978, p. 20).
In this paper I shall revisit the Peircean SCT: properly interpreted, I will argue, Peirce’s SCT not only serves its intended purpose, it also provides the basis for justifying (frequentist) statistical methods in science. While on the one hand, contemporary statistical methods increase the mathematical rigor and generality of Peirce’s SCT, on the other, Peirce provides something current statistical methodology lacks: an account of inductive inference and a philosophy of experiment that links the justification for statistical tests to a more general rationale for scientific induction. Combining the mathematical contributions of modern statistics with the inductive philosophy of Peirce, sets the stage for developing an adequate justification for contemporary inductive statistical methodology.
2. Probabilities are assigned to procedures not hypotheses
Peirce’s philosophy of experimental testing shares a number of key features with the contemporary (Neyman and Pearson) Statistical Theory: statistical methods provide, not means for assigning degrees of probability, evidential support, or confirmation to hypotheses, but procedures for testing (and estimation), whose rationale is their predesignated high frequencies of leading to correct results in some hypothetical long-run. A Neyman and Pearson (NP) statistical test, for example, instructs us “To decide whether a hypothesis, H, of a given type be rejected or not, calculate a specified character, x0, of the observed facts; if x> x0 reject H; if x< x0 accept H.” Although the outputs of N-P tests do not assign hypotheses degrees of probability, “it may often be proved that if we behave according to such a rule … we shall reject H when it is true not more, say, than once in a hundred times, and in addition we may have evidence that we shall reject H sufficiently often when it is false” (Neyman and Pearson, 1933, p.142).[i]
The relative frequencies of erroneous rejections and erroneous acceptances in an actual or hypothetical long run sequence of applications of tests are error probabilities; we may call the statistical tools based on error probabilities, error statistical tools. In describing his theory of inference, Peirce could be describing that of the error-statistician:
The theory here proposed does not assign any probability to the inductive or hypothetic conclusion, in the sense of undertaking to say how frequently that conclusion would be found true. It does not propose to look through all the possible universes, and say in what proportion of them a certain uniformity occurs; such a proceeding, were it possible, would be quite idle. The theory here presented only says how frequently, in this universe, the special form of induction or hypothesis would lead us right. The probability given by this theory is in every way different—in meaning, numerical value, and form—from that of those who would apply to ampliative inference the doctrine of inverse chances. (2.748)
The doctrine of “inverse chances” alludes to assigning (posterior) probabilities in hypotheses by applying the definition of conditional probability (Bayes’s theorem)—a computation requires starting out with a (prior or “antecedent”) probability assignment to an exhaustive set of hypotheses:
If these antecedent probabilities were solid statistical facts, like those upon which the insurance business rests, the ordinary precepts and practice [of inverse probability] would be sound. But they are not and cannot be statistical facts. What is the antecedent probability that matter should be composed of atoms? Can we take statistics of a multitude of different universes? (2.777)
For Peircean induction, as in the N-P testing model, the conclusion or inference concerns a hypothesis that either is or is not true in this one universe; thus, assigning a frequentist probability to a particular conclusion, other than the trivial ones of 1 or 0, for Peirce, makes sense only “if universes were as plentiful as blackberries” (2.684). Thus the Bayesian inverse probability calculation seems forced to rely on subjective probabilities for computing inverse inferences, but “subjective probabilities” Peirce charges “express nothing but the conformity of a new suggestion to our prepossessions, and these are the source of most of the errors into which man falls, and of all the worse of them” (2.777).
Hearing Pierce contrast his view of induction with the more popular Bayesian account of his day (the Conceptualists), one could be listening to an error statistician arguing against the contemporary Bayesian (subjective or other)—with one important difference. Today’s error statistician seems to grant too readily that the only justification for N-P test rules is their ability to ensure we will rarely take erroneous actions with respect to hypotheses in the long run of applications. This so called inductive behavior rationale seems to supply no adequate answer to the question of what is learned in any particular application about the process underlying the data. Peirce, by contrast, was very clear that what is really wanted in inductive inference in science is the ability to control error probabilities of test procedures, i.e., “the trustworthiness of the proceeding”. Moreover it is only by a faulty analogy with deductive inference, Peirce explains, that many suppose that inductive (synthetic) inference should supply a probability to the conclusion: “… in the case of analytic inference we know the probability of our conclusion (if the premises are true), but in the case of synthetic inferences we only know the degree of trustworthiness of our proceeding (“The Probability of Induction” 2.693).
Knowing the “trustworthiness of our inductive proceeding”, I will argue, enables determining the test’s probative capacity, how reliably it detects errors, and the severity of the test a hypothesis withstands. Deliberately making use of known flaws and fallacies in reasoning with limited and uncertain data, tests may be constructed that are highly trustworthy probes in detecting and discriminating errors in particular cases. This, in turn, enables inferring which inferences about the process giving rise to the data are and are not warranted: an inductive inference to hypothesis H is warranted to the extent that with high probability the test would have detected a specific flaw or departure from what H asserts, and yet it did not.
3. So why is justifying Peirce’s SCT thought to be so problematic?
You can read Section 3 here. (it’s not necessary for understanding the rest).
4. Peircean induction as severe testing
… [I]nduction, for Peirce, is a matter of subjecting hypotheses to “the test of experiment” (7.182).
The process of testing it will consist, not in examining the facts, in order to see how well they accord with the hypothesis, but on the contrary in examining such of the probable consequences of the hypothesis … which would be very unlikely or surprising in case the hypothesis were not true. (7.231)
When, however, we find that prediction after prediction, notwithstanding a preference for putting the most unlikely ones to the test, is verified by experiment,…we begin to accord to the hypothesis a standing among scientific results.
This sort of inference it is, from experiments testing predictions based on a hypothesis, that is alone properly entitled to be called induction. (7.206)
While these and other passages are redolent of Popper, Peirce differs from Popper in crucial ways. Peirce, unlike Popper, is primarily interested not in falsifying claims but in the positive pieces of information provided by tests, with “the corrections called for by the experiment” and with the hypotheses, modified or not, that manage to pass severe tests. For Popper, even if a hypothesis is highly corroborated (by his lights), he regards this as at most a report of the hypothesis’ past performance and denies it affords positive evidence for its correctness or reliability. Further, Popper denies that he could vouch for the reliability of the method he recommends as “most rational”—conjecture and refutation. Indeed, Popper’s requirements for a highly corroborated hypothesis are not sufficient for ensuring severity in Peirce’s sense (Mayo 1996, 2003, 2005). Where Popper recoils from even speaking of warranted inductions, Peirce conceives of a proper inductive inference as what had passed a severe test—one which would, with high probability, have detected an error if present.
In Peirce’s inductive philosophy, we have evidence for inductively inferring a claim or hypothesis H when not only does H “accord with” the data x; but also, so good an accordance would very probably not have resulted, were H not true. In other words, we may inductively infer H when it has withstood a test of experiment that it would not have withstood, or withstood so well, were H not true (or were a specific flaw present). This can be encapsulated in the following severity requirement for an experimental test procedure, ET, and data set x.
Hypothesis H passes a severe test with x iff (firstly) x accords with H and (secondly) the experimental test procedure ET would, with very high probability, have signaled the presence of an error were there a discordancy between what H asserts and what is correct (i.e., were H false).
The test would “have signaled an error” by having produced results less accordant with H than what the test yielded. Thus, we may inductively infer H when (and only when) H has withstood a test with high error detecting capacity, the higher this probative capacity, the more severely H has passed. What is assessed (quantitatively or qualitatively) is not the amount of support for H but the probative capacity of the test of experiment ET (with regard to those errors that an inference to H is declaring to be absent)……….
You can read the rest of Section 4 here.
5. The path from qualitative to quantitative induction
In my understanding of Peircean induction, the difference between qualitative and quantitative induction is really a matter of degree, according to whether their trustworthiness or severity is quantitatively or only qualitatively ascertainable. This reading not only neatly organizes Peirce’s typologies of the various types of induction, it underwrites the manner in which, within a given classification, Peirce further subdivides inductions by their “strength”.
(I) First-Order, Rudimentary or Crude Induction
Consider Peirce’s First Order of induction: the lowest, most rudimentary form that he dubs, the “pooh-pooh argument”. It is essentially an argument from ignorance: Lacking evidence for the falsity of some hypothesis or claim H, provisionally adopt H. In this very weakest sort of induction, crude induction, the most that can be said is that a hypothesis would eventually be falsified if false. (It may correct itself—but with a bang!) It “is as weak an inference as any that I would not positively condemn” (8.237). While uneliminable in ordinary life, Peirce denies that rudimentary induction is to be included as scientific induction. Without some reason to think evidence of H‘s falsity would probably have been detected, were H false, finding no evidence against H is poor inductive evidence for H. H has passed only a highly unreliable error probe. Continue reading →