Have library access?
  • Journals

The Operational Coherence of Data Reduction in Millikan's Oil-Drop Experiment



Robert Andrews Millikan's oil-drop experiment provided a fairly accurate measurement of the charge of the electron. However, Millikan discarded data that did not fit with his initial hypothesis regarding the value of the charge and was not honest about doing so in his published work. I use this case in order to develop an objection to Hasok Chang's operational coherence theory of truth, according to which a statement is true if belief in that statement is needed when engaging in a coherent activity. I argue that Millikan's data reduction is a coherent activity, and that Millikan's belief in his initial hypothesis regarding the charge of the electron was needed in this coherent activity because it provided the grounds for discarding some of the data. According to Chang's theory, Millikan's initial hypothesis is therefore true. Even if we think that Chang's theory provides the correct result in this case, it does so for the wrong reason. The fact that Millikan needed to believe in his initial hypothesis in order to determine which data to discard is not a good reason for concluding that his initial hypothesis is true.

Parallel abstracts



Arabatzis, Theodore (2006). Representing Electrons: A Biographical Approach to Theoretical Entities. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
Chang, Hasok (2012). Is Water H2O? Evidence, Realism and Pluralism. Dordrecht: Springer.
Chang, Hasok (2014). Epistemic Activities and Systems of Practice: Units of Analysis in Philosophy of Science after the Practice Turn. In Science after the Practice Turn in the Philosophy, History, and Social Studies of Science, edited by Léna Soler, Sjoerd Zwart, Michael Lynch, and Vincent Israel-Jost. New York and London: Routledge, pp. 67-79.
Chang, Hasok (2016). Pragmatic Realism. Revista de Humanidades de Valparaíso 4(8): 107-122.
Chang, Hasok (2017). Operational Coherence as the Source of Truth. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 117(2): 103-122.