Mechanism of Theory Rejection

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How do theories become rejected? What is the mechanism of theory rejection?

Theory rejection is a necessary part of scientific change. Any theory of scientific change requires a means to explain how a theory becomes rejected.

Some well-known examples of theory rejection are the rejections of the various theories that made up the Aristotelian-Scholastic mosaic by the end of the 17th century. These theories included geocentrism, the four elements, the four causes, and natural astrology. They were replaced in the mosaic by the various theories of Cartesian and Newtonian science. 1pp. 167-172

Another classical example of theory rejection is the rejection of the phlogiston theory of combustion in the eighteenth century. The theory was introduced by George Stahl (1660-1734) to explain the process of the calcination used to prepare metals from their ores. Flammable substances such as wood were said to be rich in phlogiston, which was released by combustion. Metals were thought to be compounds of the metal`s calx and phlogiston. Metals were prepared from their calx by placing them in burning wood charcoal, which was thought to result in the transfer of phlogiston from the burning charcoal to the calx. The theory was further developed by Henry Cavendish (1731-1810) and Joseph Priestley (1733-1804). The Chemical Revolution brought greater attention to precise measurement of chemical processes, and it was found that the metal calx weighed more than the metal end product. While this led some to posit that phlogiston had negative weight, Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794) supposed instead that a substance he called `oxygen` was released from the calx (which is now known as the metal`s oxide) during the formation of the metal. The phlogiston theory was rejected when the oxygen theory of combustion was accepted into the mosaic. 2

In the scientonomic context, this question was first formulated by Hakob Barseghyan in 2015. The question is currently accepted as a legitimate topic for discussion by Scientonomy community. Theory Rejection theorem (Barseghyan-2015) is currently accepted by Scientonomy community as the best available theory on the subject. Theory Rejection theorem (Barseghyan-2015) states "A theory becomes rejected only when other theories that are incompatible with the theory become accepted."


The question about the rejection of theories has been an important one throughout the history of science. Many philosophers of science have attempted to provide an answer to the question of how scientific theories get rejected. Both rationalists and empiricists thought that empirical theories can be rejected or disproved in an incontrovertible manner. Believing that there is an absolute method of science, they contended that theories are assessed by this method, and if they fail to satisfy the method’s requirements, they are conclusively rejected.3 Immanuel Kant echoed their beliefs. He held that scientific theories (especially Newtonian mechanics) are synthetic a priori. As their knowledge is gained independently of experience but is nevertheless synthetic, theories can never be rejected as no empirical evidence can contradict them.4

The rejection of Newtonian theory by Einstein’s general relativity in 1919 led philosophers of science to re-evaluate their notion of the status of scientific theories. The position of infallibilism of the earlier philosophers was replaced with fallibilism during the early 20th century. For example, logical positivists (or empiricists) of the Vienna Circle advanced a probabilistic understanding of theories based on inductive logic.5 They argued that we cannot absolutely know whether a theory is true or false. Rather, they thought that empirical evidence is used as confirming or dis-confirming evidence for theories. A theory was thought to get rejected when it was confronted with a sufficiently great number of disconfirming instances, leading to a detrimental reduction in its probability.6

Karl Popper argued in Logic of Scientific Discovery in favor of falsificationism, which is the idea that scientific theories are tested via attempts to refute them. If an experimental result fails to contradict the predictions of a theory, the theory remains accepted. However, if the results of an experiment contradict the theory, the theory is rejected. The more attempts of falsification a theory ‘survives,’ the greater the confidence we can have in the theory. But since Popper believed in fallibilism, no theory was absolutely certain, and would be eventually refuted. Like logical positivists, Popper applied his process of falsification to individual theories.7

In his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn argued that science is conducted under paradigms, which can be defined as a set of related theories forming the ‘worldview’ of the scientific community. The paradigms were distinguished using ‘normal science’ and ‘scientific revolutions.’ Science conducted within a paradigm constituted normal science, while a scientific revolution characterized the transition from one paradigm to another. Most importantly, Kuhn believed that there is an accumulation of anomalies that theories often fail to explain. When there is a critical mass of anomalies that the theories within a given paradigm fail to explicate, a scientific revolution takes place that ushers in the era of a new paradigm whose theories provide sufficient explanations of anomalies. Crucially, the theories of the previous paradigm are rejected and replaced by those of the new paradigm. Hence, there is a whole-scale rejection of theories of one paradigm, which are replaced by those of the new one.8 Interestingly, Kuhn differs from logical positivists and Popper, because the former takes theory evaluation as a ‘holistic’ process, while the latter two thought that individual theories can be tested and, therefore, rejected. Another important difference between Kuhn and the earlier philosophers is his emphasis on the contingency of scientific communities as opposed to focusing on the explication of the universal method of science.

Arguing in his Methodology of Scientific Research Programs, Imre Lakatos viewed theories not in isolation, but as part of an interrelated set that he named research programmes. A research programme is composed of the ‘hard core’ and the ‘protective belt.’ The former contains the central and fundamental theories of the programme, whereas the latter include subsidiary and secondary theories or assumptions. In light of the emergence of experimental anomalies or new data, Lakatos argued that the protective belt was modified to explain the new phenomenon, so that the hard core could be retained. Hence, it was theories in the protective belt that could be rejected and modified. Theories in the hard core were immune to rejection.9 Lakatos was influenced by Popper as he used his notions of theory falsification. However, like Kuhn, he utilized the Quine-Duhem thesis, especially the idea that theories are not tested in isolation, but as part of a web of beliefs. Accordingly, his views on theory rejection reflected the notion that, contrary to the views of most philosophers of early and mid 20th century, theories can only be evaluated as part of a system of beliefs.

Building on the ideas of his predecessors, the later Larry Laudan proposed the reticulated model in his book Science and Values. Reticulated model posits that the values, methodologies, and theories of a given scientific community at a particular time mutually influence each other. It is through the interaction of epistemic values and scientific methodologies that theories are modified or rejected. Therefore, for Laudan, the expectations of the contingent, historical scientific community and its methodologies lead to the rejection of theories.10 Laudan’s ideas are arguably significant preludes to the foundations of scientonomy.


Acceptance Record

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CommunityAccepted FromAcceptance IndicatorsStill AcceptedAccepted UntilRejection Indicators
Scientonomy1 January 2016This is when the community accepted its first answer to this question, Theory Rejection theorem (Barseghyan-2015), which indicates that the question is itself legitimate.Yes

All Theories

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TheoryFormulationFormulated In
Theory Rejection theorem (Barseghyan-2015)A theory becomes rejected only when other theories that are incompatible with the theory become accepted.2015
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Accepted Theories

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CommunityTheoryAccepted FromAccepted Until
ScientonomyTheory Rejection theorem (Barseghyan-2015)1 January 2016

Suggested Modifications

According to our records, there have been no suggested modifications on this topic.

Current View

In Scientonomy community, the accepted theory on the subject is Theory Rejection theorem (Barseghyan-2015). It states: "A theory becomes rejected only when other theories that are incompatible with the theory become accepted."


According to the theory rejection theorem, a theory becomes rejected only when other theories that are incompatible with the theory become accepted. By the First Law for theories, an accepted theory will remain accepted until it is replaced by other theories. By the Zeroth Law, the elements of the scientific mosaic must be compatible with one another. Thus, a theory can only become rejected when it is replaced by an incompatible theory or theories.1p. 167-172 Read More

Open Questions

The following related topic(s) currently lack an accepted answer:

  • Rejection of Data: When data points are rejected as inaccurate, the First Law (perhaps via the Theory Rejection Theorem) would predict that those propositions are replaced by something. What are they replaced by? The topic has no accepted answer in Scientonomy.

Related Topics

This topic is a sub-topic of Mechanism of Scientific Change. It has the following sub-topic(s):

This topic is also related to the following topic(s):


  1. a b  Barseghyan, Hakob. (2015) The Laws of Scientific Change. Springer.
  2. ^ Weisberg, Needham, and Hendry (2010) 
  3. ^  Laudan, Larry. (1970) Commentary. In Stuewer (Ed.) (1970), 127-132; 230-238.
  4. ^  Kant, Immanuel. (1781) Critique of Pure Reason. Cambridge University Press.
  5. ^  Godfrey-Smith, Peter. (2003) Theory and Reality. University of Chicago Press.
  6. ^  Laudan, Larry. (1968) Theories of Scientific Method from Plato to Mach: A Bibliographical Review. History of Science 7, 1-63.
  7. ^  Popper, Karl. (1959) The Logic of Scientific Discovery. Routledge.
  8. ^  Kuhn, Thomas. (1962) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. University of Chicago Press.
  9. ^  Lakatos, Imre. (1978) Philosophical Papers: Volume 1. The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes. Cambridge University Press.
  10. ^  Laudan, Larry. (1984) Science and Values. University of California Press.


Yichen Zhang (22.8%), Ameer Sarwar (42.5%), Jacob MacKinnon (4.0%), Hakob Barseghyan (4.1%), Paul Patton (26.5%)