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University of Chicago Press

Philosophy of Science Association

Science and Decision Making


Author(s): C. West Churchman
Source: Philosophy of Science, Vol. 23, No. 3 (Jul., 1956), pp. 247-249
Published by: University of Chicago Press on behalf of the Philosophy of Science Association
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/185419
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DISCUSSION
SCIENCE AND DECISION MAKING*

C. WEST CHURCHMAN

It does seem to me to be both sensible and fruitful to apply modern decision


theory to the activities of the scientist as well as to the activities of the business
executive, military general, or visitor to Monte Carlo. When this is done, it is
quite natural to ask where scientific decision making stops, for it is clear that
scientists make many decisions in addition to the "ultimate" decision to accept
or reject an hypothesis, which Jeffrey finds so objectionable. Scientists decide
what makes a relevant observation, what controls should be applied in taking
observations, how many observations ought to be made, what "model" to use
as a framework for observations, and so on.
How can one justify these decisions which the scientist makes? Those of us
who have raised this question have not meant to imply that every scientist must
be able to justify every decision he makes. Such an implication would be tanta-
mount to stifling activity, since it often seems to be a good working rule that the
justification of a decision takes ten times as long as the implementation of the
decision itself. But to philosophers of science, it does seem sensible to raise these
questions about the justification of scientific decisions, and to seek answers
within the framework of decision theory.
"Decision theory" has been ably characterized by Jeffrey; essentially it is an
attempt to find criteria for selecting "optimal" decisions among a set of alterna-
tive actions-where optimality is based-as Jeffrey suggests-on some measure
of the values of various outcomes that may result from selecting each of the
actions. As applied to science, the criteria of optimal decisions for the type and
number of observations, the conceptual framework, etc., depend (I think) on
the ultimate aims of scientific activity. More specifically, they depend on the
relative values of these aims. For on what else could the criteria be grounded?
Thus the answer to the question posed at the outset is that the scientist may
stop his decision making at any number of places. He may decide only to observe,
and to observe in such a way that all others would agree with his results if they
were to observe the same things. If he has sufficient funds, he has no worry
about the limits on the number of observations, and if the collection of observa-
tions-and his continued existence-are his only aims, then perhaps his decison
criteria would not be too difficult to develop. Whether such a chap is really a
scientist is not so important to discuss here; there are certainly other chaps who
want to do more than this who are scientists. For example, one may feel moti-
vated-in the manner of Karl Pearson-to reduce his observations to a simple
and convenient form. Now the decision criteria become very much more compli-
cated, unless one is willing to accept naive notions of simplicity and convenience
* A reply to R. C. Jeffrey, "Valuation and Acceptance of Scientific Hypotheses," this
issue, Philosophy of Science, Vol. 22, No. 3, July, 1956.
247

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248 C. WEST CHURCHMAN

that won't meet the test of agreement. And if one goes even further, and wants
to "assign probabilities" to hypotheses, I'm sure that he will have to evaluate
the relative worth of (1) more observations, (2) greater scope of his conceptual
model, (3) simplicity, (4) precision of language, (5) accuracy of the probability
assignment. Such a scientist, whether or not he thinks of himself as "accepting"
hypotheses, is a decision maker with multiple aims, and the criteria of optimal
decision making depend on the values of these aims.
I gather that Jeffrey wants to go no further than this-because this much is
already terribly difficult to work out. I would certainly agree with him that few
if any scientists "simply" accept hypotheses-for acceptance of hypotheses is
an activity rarely to be undertaken with a complete freedom from risk. Much
of the issue that Jeffrey raises depends on what one thinks "acceptance" means,
and here I cannot necessarily speak for the other authors he cites. It does seem
to me that hypotheses are signs of intended behavior-so that "X accepts hy-
pothesis H" means "X intends to adopt action A." (In this respect, I find the
quote of De Finetti, p. 243, very confusing.)
In this sense of "acceptance," scientists do accept hypotheses. For example,
a scientist woniderswhether to repeat an experiment he did yesterday, or to try
a new experiment today which is based on yesterday's findings. This situation
can be given the form of "hypothesis testing," and it is sensible to say that if
the scientist intends to repeat the experiment, he "rejects" the hypothesis that
yesterday's results have a certain degree of accuracy, and if he intends to run a
new experiment, he accepts the hypothesis.
But Jeffrey seems to feel that the situation gets out of hand if the scientific
information is "open ended" so that no one knows what aims it will serve. There
is no denying that this is a critical question-and not an abstract one either.
Our national Census Bureau-which does not enjoy the luxury of gathering any
information that its chiefs feel curious to collect-must make decisions about
the quality, type and amount of information, without in many instances knowing
how the information is to be used.
Here the situation is quite similar to that which occurs in production and
distribution. Of course, we don't have a recognized "philosophy of production"
in the same sense in which we have a "philosophy of science"-possibly because
the material expression of ideas is somehow less worthy of contemplation than
the intellectual. But production and distribution have had to face the problem
of the "open ended product." There is no such thing as a "good" rope: the best
rope for anchoring a boat may be very poor rope indeed for hanging clothes-or
men. The only answer seems to be (1) a "market" survey of the demand for
products, (2) specification of product lines in terms of the most important of
these demands, and (3) consumer education. None of these "answers" is by
any means simple to give, although there is considerable research activity going
on with respect to each one of them. I can't help feeling that the analogy holds:
the only adequate answer for the problem of open ended information seems to
be (1) a "market" survey of the demands for information, (2) specification of
hypotheses in terms of these demands, and (3) consumer education. In this

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DISCUSSION SCIENCE AND DECISION MAKING 249

sense, it is certainly meaningless to talk of the acceptance of the hypothesis


about the freedom of a vaccine from active polio virus, provided the information
has a number of different uses. Even within one business organization one can
readily point out that the many uses of information imply many different criteria
for the "acceptance" or "rejection" of hypotheses.
I would therefore agree that information use does pose quite a problem for
the theory of hypothesis testing. Indeed, logicians and statisticans both have
scarcely scratched the surface in considering this complex problem. But if hy-
pothesis testing does imply the kind of approach mentioned above, then I would
strongly urge that the research be conducted by scientists. Indeed, the growing
awareness of the problem of data processing and utilization in governmental and
industrial organizations brings some encouragement to those who don't want
science to stop just before it gives an answer.
Case Institute of Technology

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