The Strong and Weak Senses of Theory-Ladenness of Experimentation: Theory-Driven versus Exploratory Experiments in the History of High-Energy Particle Physics

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Karaca, Koray
preprint description
In the theory-dominated view of scientific experimentation, all relations of theory and experiment are taken on a par; namely, that experiments are performed solely to ascertain the conclusions of scientific theories. As a result, different aspects of experimentation and of the relation of theory to experiment remain undifferentiated. This in turn fosters a notion of theory-ladenness of experimentation (TLE) that is too coarse-grained to accurately describe the relations of theory and experiment in scientific practice. By contrast, in this article, I suggest that TLE should be understood as an umbrella concept that has different senses. To this end, I introduce a three-fold distinction among the theories of high-energy particle physics (HEP) as background theories, model theories and phenomenological models. Drawing on this categorization, I contrast two types of experimentation, namely, “theory-driven” and “exploratory” experiments, and I distinguish between the “weak” and “strong” senses of TLE in the context of scattering experiments from the history of HEP. This distinction enables to identify the exploratory character of the deep-inelastic electron-proton scattering experiments—performed at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) between the years 1967 and 1973—thereby shedding light on a crucial phase of the history of HEP, namely, the discovery of “scaling”, which was the decisive step towards the construction of quantum chromo-dynamics (QCD) as a gauge theory of strong interactions.