The role of orientation experiments in discovering mechanisms

There’s a new paper with this title in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A, which looks very interesting. It’s by Raoul Gervais and Erik Weber at Ghent. Here’s the abstract:

Many types of experiments have been recognized in the literature. One important type we discuss in this article is the orientation experiment. While orientation experiments are like other types of experiments in that they are tests for causal relevance, they also have other qualities. One important (but not the only) goal of these experiments is to offer a rough, qualitative characterization of the mechanism responsible for a capacity of interest, effectively constraining future research. This makes them particularly useful during the early stages of investigation, when an explanandum-phenomenon has just been identified and several (often competing) hypotheses as to the qualitative character of the mechanism responsible for it are proposed. We illustrate our claims, and explicate a number of additional aims that orientation experiments can sometimes serve, by considering three case studies from different era’s, namely the discovery of the mechanisms responsible for i) the capacity of eels to produce numbing sensations (17th and 18th century), ii) puerperal fever in Semmelweis’ Vienna Maternity Hospital (19th century), and iii) the capacity of pigeons to home (20th century).

Something for the reading list!