Tag Archive: demarcation

More falsificationism strawmen going up in flames

A second familiar approach from the same period is Karl Popper’s ‘falsificationist’ criterion, which fares no better. Apart from the fact that it leaves ambiguous the scientific status of virtually every singular existential statement, however well supported (e.g., the claim that there are atoms, that there is a planet closer to the sun than the Earth, that there is a missing link), it has the untoward consequence of countenancing as ‘scientific’ every crank claim which makes ascertainably false assertions. Thus flat Earthers, biblical creationists, proponents of laetrile or orgone boxes, Uri Geller devotees, Bermuda Triangulators, circle squarers, Lysenkoists, charioteers of the gods, perpetuum mobile builders, Big Foot searchers, Loch Nessians, faith healers, polywater dabblers, Rosicrucians, the-world-is-about-to-enders, primal screamers, water diviners, magicians, and astrologers all turn out to be scientific on Popper’s criterion – just so long as they are prepared to indicate some observation, however improbable, which (if it came to pass) would cause them to change their minds. [121]

The basic decision in science

I admit that my criterion of falsifiability does not lead to an unambiguous classification. Indeed, it is impossible to decide, by analysing its logical form, whether a system of statements is a conventional system of irrefutable implicit definitions, or whether it is a system which is empirical in my sense; that is, a refutable system. Yet this only shows that my criterion of demarcation cannot be applied immediately to a system of statements […]. The question whether a given system should as such be regarded as a conventionalist or an empirical one is therefore misconceived. Only with reference to the methods applied to a theoretical system is it at all possible to ask whether we are dealing with a conventionalist or an empirical theory. The only way to avoid conventionalism is by taking a decision: the decision not to apply its methods. We decide that if our system is threatened we will never save it by any kind of conventionalist stratagem. [61]

The goal of the scientist’s endeavours

My only reason for proposing my criterion of demarcation is that it is fruitful: that a great many points can be clarified and explained with its help. ‘Definitions are dogmas; only the conclusions drawn from them can afford us any new in­sight’, says Menger. This is certainly true of the definition of the concept ‘science’. It is only from the consequences of my definition of empirical science, and from the methodological decisions which depend upon this definition, that the scientist will be able to see how far it conforms to his intuitive idea of the goal of his endeavours. [33-4]

The problem of the empirical basis

[I]n the practice of scientific research, demarcation is sometimes of immediate urgency in connection with theoretical systems, whereas in connection with singular statements, doubt as to their empirical character rarely arises. It is true that errors of observation occur and that they give rise to false singular statements, but the scientist scarcely ever has occasion to describe a singular statement as non-empirical or metaphysical. [21]

Evading falsification

A third objection may seem more serious. It might be said that even if the asymmetry is admitted, it is still impossible, for various reasons, that any theoretical system should ever be conclusively falsified. For it is always possible to find some way of evading falsification, for example by introducing ad hoc an auxiliary hypothesis, or by changing ad hoc a defini­tion. It is even possible without logical inconsistency to adopt the position of simply refusing to acknowledge any falsi­fying experience whatsoever. Admittedly, scientists do not usually proceed in this way, but logically such procedure is possible; and this fact, it might be claimed, makes the logical value of my proposed criterion of demarcation dubious, to say the least.

I must admit the justice of this criticism; but I need not therefore withdraw my proposal to adopt falsifiability as a criterion of demarcation. For I am going to propose that the empirical method shall be characterized as a method that excludes precisely those ways of evading falsification which, as my imaginary critic rightly insists, are logically possible. Accord­ing to my proposal, what characterizes the empirical method is its manner of exposing to falsification, in every conceiv­able way, the system to be tested. Its aim is not to save the lives of untenable systems but, on the contrary, to select the one which is by comparison the fittest, by exposing them all to the fiercest struggle for survival. [19-20]

Singled out by experience

Now in my view there is no such thing as induction. Thus inference to theories, from singular statements which are ‘veri­fied by experience’ (whatever that may mean), is logically inadmissible. Theories are, therefore, never empirically veri­fiable. If we wish to avoid the positivist’s mistake of eliminating, by our criterion of demarcation, the theoretical systems of natural science, then we must choose a criterion which allows us to admit to the domain of empirical science even statements which cannot be verified.

But I shall certainly admit a system as empirical or scientific only if it is capable of being tested by experience. These considerations suggest that not the verifiability but the falsifiability of a system is to be taken as a criterion of demar­cation. In other words: I shall not require of a scientific system that it shall be capable of being singled out, once and for all, in a positive sense; but I shall require that its logical form shall be such that it can be singled out, by means of empi­rical tests, in a negative sense: it must be possible for an empirical scientific system to be refuted by experience. [18]

Experience as a method

[W]e may distinguish three requirements which our empirical theoretical system will have to satisfy. First, it must be syn­thetic, so that it may represent a non-contradictory, a possible world. Secondly, it must satisfy the criterion of demar­cation, i.e. it must not be metaphysical, but must represent a world of possible experience. Thirdly, it must be a system distinguished in some way from other such systems as the one which represents our world of experience.

But how is the system that represents our world of experience to be distinguished? The answer is: by the fact that it has been submitted to tests, and has stood up to tests. This means that it is to be distinguished by applying to it that deduc­tive method which it is my aim to analyse, and to describe.

‘Experience’, on this view, appears as a distinctive method whereby one theoretical system may be distinguished from others; so that empirical science seems to be characterized not only by its logical form but, in addition, by its distinctive method. [16-7]

Testing a theory means trying to fault it

This criterion of demarcation between empirical and non-empirical theories I have also called the criterion of falsifia­bility or the criterion of refutability. It does not imply that irrefutable theories are false. Nor does it imply that they are meaningless. But it does imply that, as long as we cannot describe what a possible refutation of a certain theory would be like, that theory may be regarded as lying outside the field of empirical science.

The criterion of refutability or falsifiability may also be called the criterion of testability. For testing a theory, like testing a piece of machinery, means trying to fault it. Thus a theory that we know in advance cannot possibly be faulted or refuted is not testable. [88]

Science: Conjectures and Refutations

Now the impressive thing about this case [Eddington’s expedition] is the risk involved in a prediction of this kind. If observation shows that the predicted effect is definitely absent, then the theory is simply refuted. The theory is incom­patible with certain possible results of observation — in fact with results which everybody before Einstein would have expected. This is quite different from the situation I have previously described, when it turned out that the theories in question were compatible with the most divergent human behavior, so that it was practically impossible to describe any human behavior that might not be claimed to be a verification of these theories.

These considerations led me in the winter of 1919-20 to conclusions which I may now reformulate as follows.

(1) It is easy to obtain confirmations, or verifications, for nearly every theory — if we look for confirmations.

(2) Confirmations should count only if they are the result of risky predictions; that is to say, if, unenlightened by the theory in question, we should have expected an event which was incompatible with the theory — an event which would have refuted the theory.

(3) Every ‘good’ scientific theory is a prohibition: it forbids certain things to happen. The more a theory forbids, the better it is.

(4) A theory which is not refutable by any conceivable event is non-scientific. Irrefutability is not a virtue of a theory (as people often think) but a vice.

(5) Every genuine test of a theory is an attempt to falsify it, or to refute it. Testability is falsifiability; but there are de­grees of testability: some theories are more testable, more exposed to refutation, than others; they take, as it were, greater risks.

(6) Confirming evidence should not count except when it is the result of a genuine test of the theory; and this means that it can be presented as a serious but unsuccessful attempt to falsify the theory. (I now speak in such cases of ‘corroborating evidence’.)

(7) Some genuinely testable theories, when found to be false, are still upheld by their admirers—for example by in­troducing ad hoc some auxiliary assumption, or by reinterpreting the theory ad hoc in such a way that it escapes refutation. Such a procedure is always possible, but it rescues the theory from refutation only at the price of destroying, or at least lowering, its scientific status. (I later described such a rescuing operation as a ‘conventionalist twist’ or a ‘conventionalist stratagem’.)

One can sum up all this by saying that the criterion of the scientific status of a theory is its falsifiability, or refutability, or testability. [47-8]

Seeking transcendental truth

What differentiates science is that it seeks transcendental truth while denying that it possesses it. [230]

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