Tag Archive: falsification

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]

Popper on Duhem–Quine’s naive falsificationism

The falsifying mode of inference here referred to—the way in which the falsification of a conclusion entails the falsifi­cation of the system from which it is derived—is the modus tollens of classical logic. It may be described as follows:

Let p be a conclusion of a system t of statements which may consist of theories and initial conditions (for the sake of simplicity I will not distinguish between them). We may then symbolize the relation of derivability (analytical implication) of p from t by ‘t ➙ p’ which may be read: ‘p follows from t ’. Assume p to be false, which we may write ‘p’, to be read ‘not-p’. Given the relation of deducibility, t ➙ p, and the assumption p, we can then infer t  (read ‘not-t ’); that is, we regard t as falsified. If we denote the conjunction (simultaneous assertion) of two statements by putting a point between the symbols standing for them, we may also write the falsifying inference thus: ((t ➙ p).p) ➙ t , or in words: ‘If p is derivable from t, and if p is false, then t also is false’.

By means of this mode of inference we falsify the whole system (the theory as well as the initial conditions) which was required for the deduction of the statement p, i.e. of the falsified statement. Thus it cannot be asserted of any one statement of the system that it is, or is not, specifically upset by the falsification. Only if p is independent of some part of the system can we say that this part is not involved in the falsification.* With this is connected the following possibility: we may, in some cases, perhaps in consideration of the levels of universality, attribute the falsification to some definite hypothesis—for instance to a newly introduced hypothesis. This may happen if a well-corroborated theory, and one which continues to be further corroborated, has been deductively explained by a new hypothesis of a higher level. The attempt will have to be made to test this new hypothesis by means of some of its consequences which have not yet been tested. If any of these are falsified, then we may well attribute the falsification to the new hypothesis alone. We shall then seek, in its stead, other high-level generalizations, but we shall not feel obliged to regard the old system, of lesser generality, as having been falsified.

* Thus we cannot at first know which among the various statements of the remaining sub-system t ′ (of which p is not independent) we are to blame for the falsity of p; which of these statements we have to alter, and which we should retain. (I am not here discussing interchangeable statements.) It is often only the scientific instinct of the investigator (influenced, of course, by the results of testing and re-testing) that makes him guess which statements of t ′ he should regard as innocuous, and which he should regard as being in need of modification. Yet it is worth remembering that it is often the modification of what we are inclined to regard as obviously innocuous (because of its complete agreement with our normal habits of thought) which may produce a decisive advance. A notable example of this is Einstein’s modification of the concept of simultaneity. [55-6]

Kuhn on falsification

A very different approach to this whole network of problems has been developed by Karl R. Popper who denies the existence of any verification procedures at all. Instead, he emphasizes the importance of falsification, i.e., of the test that, because its outcome is negative, necessitates the rejection of an established theory. Clearly, the role thus attri­buted to falsification is much like the one this essay assigns to anomalous experiences, i.e., to experiences that, by evoking crisis, prepare the way for a new theory. Nevertheless, anomalous experiences may not be identified with falsifying ones. Indeed, I doubt that the latter exist. As has repeatedly been emphasized before, no theory ever solves all the puzzles with which it is confronted at a given time; nor are the solutions already achieved often perfect. On the contrary, it is just the incompleteness and imperfection of the existing data-theory fit that, at any time, define many of the puzzles that characterize normal science. If any and every failure to fit were ground for theory rejection, all theories ought to be rejected at all times. On the other hand, if only severe failures to fit justifies theory rejection, then the Popperians will require some criterion of “improbability” or of “degree of falsification.” In developing one they will almost certainly encounter the same network of difficulties that has haunted the advocates of the various probabilistic verifi­cation theories.

Many of the preceding difficulties [Kuhn is referring to inductive reasoning] can be avoided by recognising that both of these prevalent and opposed views about the underlying logic of scientific enquiry have tried to compress two largely separate processes into one. Popper’s anomalous experience is important to science because it invokes competitors for an existing paradigm. But falsification, though it surely occurs, does not happen with, or simply because of, the emergence of an anomaly or falsifying instance. Instead, it is a subsequent and separate process that might equally well be called verification since it consists in the triumph of a new paradigm over the old one. [146-7]

Step-by-step approximations to truth

The degree of corroboration of two statements may not be comparable in all cases, any more than the degree of falsi­fiability: we cannot define a numerically calculable degree of corroboration, but can speak only roughly in terms of positive degree of corroboration, negative degrees of corroboration, and so forth. Yet we can lay down various rules; for instance the rule that we shall not continue to accord a positive degree of corroboration to a theory which has been falsified by an inter-subjectively testable experiment based upon a falsifying hypothesis. (We may, however, under cer­tain circumstances accord a positive degree of corroboration to another theory, even though it follows a kindred line of thought. An example is Einstein’s photon theory, with its kinship to Newton’s corpuscular theory of light.) In general we regard an inter-subjectively testable falsification as final (provided it is well tested): this is the way in which the asymme­try between verification and falsification of theories makes itself felt. Each of these methodological points contributes in its own peculiar way to the historical development of science as a process of step by step approximations. [266-7]

The heart of falsification

We must clearly distinguish between falsifiability and falsification. We have introduced falsifiability solely as a criterion for the empirical character of a system of statements. As to falsification, special rules must be introduced which will de­ter­mine under what conditions a system is to be regarded as falsified.

We say that a theory is falsified only if we have accepted basic statements which contradict it. This condition is neces­sary, but not sufficient; for we have seen that non-reproducible single occurrences are of no significance to science. Thus a few stray basic statements contradicting a theory will hardly induce us to reject it as falsified. We shall take it as falsified only if we discover a reproducible effect which refutes the theory. In other words, we only accept the falsification if a low-level empirical hypothesis which describes such an effect is proposed and corroborated. This kind of hypothe­sis may be called a falsifying hypothesis. The requirement that the falsifying hypothesis must be empirical, and so falsi­fiable, only means that it must stand in a certain logical relationship to possible basic statements; thus this requirement only concerns the logical form of the hypothesis. The rider that the hypothesis should be corroborated refers to tests which it ought to have passed—tests which confront it with accepted basic statements.

Thus the basic statements play two different rôles. On the one hand, we have used the system of all logically possible basic statements in order to obtain with its help the logical characterization for which we were looking—that of the form of empirical statements. On the other hand, the accepted basic statements are the basis for the corroboration of hypo­theses. If accepted basic statements contradict a theory, then we take them as providing sufficient grounds for its falsifi­cation only if they corroborate a falsifying hypothesis at the same time. [66-7]

The testability of facts

Higher level empirical statements have always the character of hypotheses relative to the lower level statements de­ducible from them: they can be falsified by the falsification of these less universal statements. But in any hypothetical deductive system, these less universal statements are themselves still strictly universal statements, in the sense here understood. Thus they too must have the character of hypotheses—a fact which has often been overlooked in the case of lower-level universal statements.

I shall say even of some singular statements that they are hypothetical, seeing that conclusions may be derived from them (with the help of a theoretical system) such that the falsification of these conclusions may falsify the singular statements in question. [55]

Vorläufer des Falsifikationsprinzips

Das Falsifikationsprinzip wurde erstmals von Karl Popper ausgesprochen. Erstmals? Alle philosophischen Ideen ha­ben Vorläufer. In unserem Falle ist der Oxforder Gelehrte Robert Grosseteste (etwa 1168-1253) ein besonders interes­santes Beispiel. Nach Losee war er der erste mittelalterliche Denker, der die logischen und methodologischen Pro­bleme von Induktion, Verifikation und Falsifikation systematisch untersuchte. (Bei Popper wird er, soweit ich sehe, nir­gends erwähnt. Aber Kopernikus erwähnt seinen wichtigsten Vorgänger, Aristarch, ja auch nicht.) Grosseteste benutzte und empfahl die Methode der Falsifikation, um mit Hilfe des modus tollens von einer Gruppe konkurrierender Hypo­thesen alle bis auf eine zu eliminieren. Die wesentliche Asymmetrie zwischen Verifizierbarkeit und Falsifizierbarkeit scheint er jedoch nicht er­kannt zu haben. [117]

Real understanding

He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion. The rational position for him would be suspension of judgment, and unless he contents himself with that, he is either led by authority, or adopts, like the generality of the world, the side to which he feels most inclination. Nor is it enough that he should hear the arguments of adversaries from his own teachers, presented as they state them, and accompanied by what they offer as refutations. That is not the way to do justice to the arguments, or bring them into real contact with his own mind. He must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them; who defend them in earnest, and do their very utmost for them. He must know them in their most plausible and persuasive form; he must feel the whole force of the difficulty which the true view of the subject has to encounter and dispose of; else he will never really possess himself of the portion of truth which meets and removes that difficulty. Ninety-nine in a hundred of what are called educated men are in this condition; even of those who can argue fluently for their opinions. Their conclusion may be true, but it might be false for anything they know: they have never thrown themselves into the mental position of those who think differently from them, and con­sidered what such persons may have to say; and consequently they do not, in any proper sense of the word, know the doctrine which they themselves profess. They do not know those parts of it which explain and justify the remainder; the considerations which show that a fact which seemingly conflicts with another is reconcilable with it, or that, of two apparently strong reasons, one and not the other ought to be preferred. All that part of the truth which turns the scale, and decides the judgment of a completely informed mind, they are strangers to; nor is it ever really known, but to those who have attended equally and impartially to both sides, and endeavoured to see the reasons of both in the strongest light. So essential is this discipline to a real understanding of moral and human subjects, that if opponents of all impor­tant truths do not exist, it is indispensable to imagine them, and supply them with the strongest arguments which the most skilful devil’s advocate can conjure up. [ch. II, 47-8]

Why that other theory cannot be the true one

But on every subject on which difference of opinion is possible, the truth depends on a balance to be struck between two sets of conflicting reasons. Even in natural philosophy, there is always some other explanation possible of the same facts; some geocentric theory instead of heliocentric, some phlogiston instead of oxygen; and it has to be shown why that other theory cannot be the true one: and until this is shown, and until we know how it is shown, we do not under­stand the grounds of our opinion. But when we turn to subjects infinitely more complicated, to morals, religion, politics, social relations, and the business of life, three-fourths of the arguments for every disputed opinion consist in dispelling the appearances which favour some opinion different from it. [ch. II, 46-7]

As important a service as a human being can render

To discover to the world something which deeply concerns it, and of which it was previously ignorant; to prove to it that it had been mistaken on some vital point of temporal or spiritual interest, is as important a service as a human being can render to his fellow-creatures […]. [ch. II, 36]

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