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Published March 1, 2004 | public
Journal Article

Prediction Versus Accommodation and the Risk of Overfitting


When a scientist uses an observation to formulate a theory, it is no surprise that the resulting theory accurately captures that observation. However, when the theory makes a novel prediction—when it predicts an observation that was not used in its formulation—this seems to provide more substantial confirmation of the theory. This paper presents a new approach to the vexed problem of understanding the epistemic difference between prediction and accommodation. In fact, there are several problems that need to be disentangled; in all of them, the key is the concept of overfitting. We float the hypothesis that accommodation is a defective methodology only when the methods used to accommodate the data fail to guard against the risk of overfitting. We connect our analysis with the proposals that other philosophers have made. We also discuss its bearing on the conflict between instrumentalism and scientific realism.

Additional Information

© 2004 British Society for the Philosophy of Science. We thank Jed Buchwald, Mark Colyvan, Ellery Eells, Malcolm Forster, Mathias Frisch, Alan Hájek, Matthias Hild, Brian Keeley, Peter Lipton, Cornelius Menke, Jim Woodward, John Worrall and an anonymous referee for useful discussion.

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