jump to navigation

Popper, Falsification, and Social Theory 7 June 2006

Posted by Todd in Philosophy & Social Theory, Philosophy of Science, Queer Theory.

Theory and Reality is blowing my mind and making me stop and think about things I've taken for granted since high school. I've always been taught that scientific theories can never be proven true, but only be proven false. This is the theory of falsification that comes from Karl Popper (from Chapter 4). Popper's theory of science break down into two parts, both of which have had an incredible impact on the way we think about and teach scientific inquiry over the past 50 years.

1. Falsification (see above). For Popper, there can be no induction (that is, the quest to infer general principles from observation) because confirmation is an impossibility. Only falsification is possible.

2. Demarcation. Popper wants to distinguish between scientific and pseudo-scientific theories. For Popper, this comes down to a rather simple-seeming idea that scientific theories are those wherein scientists took risks by stepping outside of the known observations to try out new “conjectures.”

Only in reading this book have I come to confront the deep problems of scientific confirmation, about how we can actually know when a theory has been confirmed (because science presumes a constant degree of uncertainty, philosophers of science avoid the word “prove”). But I had always assumed the theory of falsification. Godfrey-Smith shows that most scientists use Popperian language and theories of science without understanding what he was actually arguing. Following G-S's argument, here are the major problems with Popper's two points:

1. The problem with falsification is the problem with scientific method in general. It's called the problem of “holism in testing.” Simply put, in order to falsify (or confirm) a theory, we must make assumptions about our ability to observe, quantify and analyze data. If any of those assumptions are faulty, our falsification (or confirmation) is false. Popper got around this by arguing that science was a set of behaviors that included making decisions about how and when to observe and what data counts. The problem with Popper's answer is obvious: If it boils down to “decisions”, then anyone can accept or falsify any theory based on which decisions they make about observation and data. If that is the case, there is not only no confirmation, but there is no falsification either. Hopefully it is obvious why this is an unacceptable theory of science. Popper then argued that you could choose to accept a theory if it was improbable that it would ever be falsified. But again we are left with the question of how improbable does it have to be before it's no longer falsified? Instead of his original claim, that observation, tightly linked to theories, have the power to falsify said theories, Popper ends up saying that falsification can occur without observation, because observation is probabilistic and based on decisions.

The problem really boils down to Popper's rejection of confirmation (G-S calls philosophers of this ilk induction skeptics). G-S illustrates the problem with a problem: If you have to build a bridge that has to carry load X, and you have two theories of how to build such a bridge, Bridge A has been tested for 50 years and never been falsified and another Bridge B is brand new and has never been falsified, Popper gives us no way to choose between the two. If Popper is correct and there is no way to confirm a theory, then two theories that have never been falsified are of equal value. Intuitively, the problem of the two bridges probably seems obvious to most people–you obviously choose the bridge that has been tested for 50 years. But remember, for Popper, Bridges A & B are theoretically equal, because there is no such thing as confirmation. Popper worked most of his later life trying to theorize an idea of corroboration, but never succeeded in solving this problem.

In the end, induction skepticism is as problematic as a naive belief in confirmation and induction proper. And so we are left with the problem of how to conceive of scientific confirmation, a question I'm sure Godfrey-Smith will address more as the book progresses.

2. So the scientific method most of us were taught is actually a kind of combination of Popper's method of demarcation (scientific theories are those which take risks) and a theory of confirmation (which Popper rejects). This boils down to the basic formula:

hypothesis/conjecture + observation/experimentation = theory/confirmation

Godfrey-Smith modifies Popper's demarcation theory to say that risk-taking is not about the production of the theory but about the way the theory is handled. G-S argues that Popper was onto something when he claimed that a scientific theory must be one that is set up for falsification, that it can risk observation. Popper argued that many theories can appear to have lots of possibility of observational falsification, but in actuality don't because they are never exposed to the risk of falsification. Specifically, Popper uses Marxism and Freudianism as examples of unscientific theories that are/were not produced in such a way as to be subject to falsification. G-S argues instead that the demarcation between scientific and non-scientific theory arises in the way those theories are handled. He gives examples of how Freudian theory can be handled as an a priori philosophy not subject to observation and falsification (e.g., in literary theory) or how it can be handled scientifically and open to observation and falsification (e.g., in cognitive psychology).

As I've been working on revisions of my book manuscript, I've been grappling with a comment one of the peer-reviewers made, that I needed to “use” more queer theory. I was educated early in my graduate career in queer theory and read it avidly until about 6 years ago, when I began to loose interest because it didn't seem to correspond to the people I was researching. What I've come away from in reading G-S this morning is a question about how to treat or handle queer theory scientifically and how to frame it for my book. If G-S's critique of Popper and Popper's critique of social scientific theories are correct, then the fundamental question I should be asking is this:

What observations would have to be made to falsify queer theory? Or given the observations already made by scientists and by me in my social-historical research, what aspects of queer theory have already been falsified?

I think in all honesty my research falsifies many parts of queer theory's basic premises of the social role of homosexuality, and I think the biology of homosexuality as it has developed over the past 15 years basically wipes out most strands of queer theory. And yet I'm in a discipline that takes it seriously and so I have to address it somehow (much like literary theory still takes Freud seriously).


1. PL - 20 November 2007

I’m glad you been holding Popper in high esteem. Before you bail out though, I suggest you examine it further closer and perhaps with other sources. If you want to avoid Popper just go into medical ‘disease’ science (not my field but Popper wouldn’t care), which has a reputation for making confirmational evidence a priority in lieu of trying to falsify every hypothesis. They make little real science headway, but the drug companies love it. I’m a bit surprised and delighted that a sociologist or social scientist favors Popper. By all appearances Kuhn’s theory, and it’s derivations became dominant two decades ago. Popper was largely dismissed because Kuhn’s emphasis on relativism allowed “soft science” disciplines to gain greater footing in society, and gain social power (which of course reinforced his views: ‘we’re more powerful so he must be right!). Group dynamics and cultural influences are here to stay, but I think you’re on the right track in taking hard looks at Popper and his emphasis on strict norms and high standards. The issue appears to me to be about how to integrate ‘Popper-like’ standards with Kuhn and a few others as social wide science standards, with less sympathy for the power boundaries of disciplines. Many people call Kuhn plural because he allows the displinary power boundaries as little kingdoms, but Popper pointed out that there was far less plurality of theories in the most funded, and powerful disciplines, which were actually quite authoritarian. The soft sciences that have chronicaly suffered from “physics envy” are usually far more self conscious about philosophy of science. I asked my biologist genius friend about all this and he looked at me like I was from Mars. Many, perhaps most biologists and especially MD’s in medical research don’t seem to study nor care much about science philosphies (merely using ‘plural’ sets off the red lights—PHILOSOPH–IES??).

I find your description of your confusion…confusing, so perhaps if you could quote G-S that would help me. What can really become mind blowing are the very different interpretations and angles one can get about Popper and Kuhn. Steven Fuller, apparently the initial developer of the discipline of social epistemology, published what I think is a very good book out entitled “Kuhn vs. Popper: The Struggle for the Soul of Science” (2003) (he’s not religious).

Setting up the falsifiability principle he mentioned that Popper was continuing to confront the question posed by Ernst Mach, “Can scientists be trusted to uphold their own scientific ideals?” This was a vital question to Popper just prior to and after WWII, who having escaped the Nazis was well acquainted with the weaknesses of scientific elites who were amassing power themselves within the war power countries. For Popper “the growing authority of scientists in society offers too many opportunities for the corruption of science. Philosophers are thus needed to ensure that scientists remain true to the normative ideal” that they “demand that scientists be critical of even their most cherished beliefs. From this impulse came Poppers falsifiablility principle as the scientific ethic…Popper and his followers were unique in seizing a glaring weakness in Kuhn’s theory: Kuhnian normal science was a politically primitive social formation that combined qualities of the Mafia, a royal dynasty and a religious order. It lacked the sort of constitutional safeguards that we take for granted in modern democracies that regularly force politicians to be accountable to more people than just themselves. Scientists should be always trying to falsity their theories, just as people should be always invited to find fault in their governments and consider alternatives—and not simply wait until the government can no longer hide its mistakes. This notoriously led Popper and his students to be equal opportunity fault-finders across the natural and social sciences.”

Regarding Popper’s ‘induction’ he states, “In short, what is universally true is not also universally known as true. Under the circumstances, knowledge becomes an instrument for concentrating, rather diffusing power: a means of domination rather than liberation. In science, this sense of ‘irrationality’ is most evident in its slavish adherence to track record—what Popper demonized as ‘induction’—whereby the sheer fact that a particular discovery was made under the aegis of a particular theory is used as the basis for claiming that only upholders of that theory have proper access to the discovery.” [Induction is therefore used to prevent criticism from anyone outside the boundaries of the upholders so they don’t shoot down the upholders theory or hypothesis, but since science was obviously becoming so powerful so quickly Popperians believed informally educated non-elites should be able to criticize science to protect society. While we may feel uncomfortable, for example, at the thought of creationists criticizing evolution theory, turn around is fair play and any reasonably educated person in the science may also criticize creationism or intelligent design. Unlike Kuhn’s theory, Popper is trying to set standards to let the most sun light in and not allow the most ruthless side to become dominant ala the Nazis, fascists, and Soviets…or the Military Industrialist Capitalists.]

Regarding your paragraph “The problem really boils down to Popper’s rejection of confirmation…”, Popper made a sound criticism (not in above book) of Kuhn’s assertion that only confirmational evidence was necessary because some evidence can be found to comfirm nearly any hypothesis. Part of the difficulty that confuses people is using the words theory and hypothesis interchangably, because they have not the same meaning. Popper often seemed to do this, and so using the term theory he often meant hypothesis. If in your example an hypothsis was formulated from the theory upon which the bridge was built, “It will not last 49 years” but it lasts 50 years, then the hypothesis was falsified. In your example it would appear that the only way the bridge is not falsified is if the hypothesis involves more than 50 years, “It will not last 51 years” because the measurement can not yet be made to falsify, and sometimes it takes time. Trying to compare a previous built bridge and a new bridge can be done with the right hypothesis, but again it will take time. I don’t see how that’s a problem about Popper, that’s a problem with the hypothesis makers. Make different hypotheses that can be tested sooner or that tests the bridge in a different way. That exemplifies another point of Popper’s. If there are hypothesis problems, it is not natures fault but the hypothesis maker who must take responsibility. Kuhn never requires responsibility and assumes the group dynamics will eventualy take care of it one way or the other. Is the example you give an example from G-S?

“Godfrey-Smith modifies Popper’s demarcation theory to say that risk-taking is not about the production of the theory but about the way the theory is handled.” My interpretation is that Popper’s saying BOTH because he’s concerned about scientists ‘protecting’ their lovely theories and their hypothesis that are supposed to test them. One way to protect theory is to form it (and subesequently related hypothesis) in a way so that it can’t be really tested (production). Another way to protect theory is by “the way” their hypothesis is tested. Another way to protect theory and hypothesis is to do something tricky AFTER it has been falsifed such as to make post hoc rationalizations to blame it on something in nature, etc., or better yet to make ad hoc changes in their theory to include amazing new explanations as to why their hypothesis keeps being falsified. (There are more ways to protect theory and hypothesis after it’s been falsified). One of Popper’s key terms is ‘historicism’ (applies to both production and ways of testing) is the false philosophical assumption “that no matter the outcomes of our trials, we always end up closer to the ideal” [in psychiatry they might label that near-insanity]. Historicism is the “refusal to admit genuine error and hence the need to alter one’s course or belief or action”. This sums up the basis of Popper being so vigilant because science can so easily be used politically. I can refer you to a current medical paradigm that appears quite pathological (not a term Popper would use).

The problem that does emerge with requiring falsification is that science becomes MUCH more difficult than just trying to gather confirmational evidence (which is what any political or ideological think tank can do), and sometimes apparently impossibly difficult. Kuhn and apparently G-S do complain about it. Anyway, please elaborate your concernsso I can understand. I’m willing to learn something here if there appears to be a learning. I stumbled upon your website by accident as I was searching for Popper/Kuhn stuff, and I’m impressed with your genuine focus and quality. Wow, this is a long message. Sorry dude.

2. pooria farahani - 9 March 2009

hello i am a master science student in physical chemistry and I study philosophy of quantum and popper`s philosophy and bohm mathematical theory. plz help me find some books and note or paper about that. thanx so much.

3. Parvez - 18 January 2010

Case study of popper’s Theory of Falsification.Many things cleared after reading the write up.But what I think every scientific hypothesis should go through experiment.That would be helpful to the common people and student to understand and faith in the science.

4. usamourrerogy - 22 May 2011

у вашего сайта приятный диз, сами делали?

возникновение фамилии базюкевич

5. Jacopo - 12 July 2011

The bridge analogy is a poor one. 1. Scientific theories rarely are so equal. One would be preferred, according to Popper, because it explains or predicts more. One bridge, by analogy, supports more weight. Astronomers, for example, were unable to decide between the old Ptolemaic theory and the new Copernican theory for almost a century because they both successively described current observations and nothing but slightly greater simplicity was gained by the Copernican model. It took the addition of highly explanatory laws of motion (and the modification of elliptical for circular orbits) to provide a clear winner and falsification for Ptolemy’s model. 2. Popper granted that theories take on a special status when highly corroborated. New theories take time to achieve such status permitting many unsuccessful attempts to falsify them. His point was that scientists should make every effort to disprove their theories, to make sure a new bridge design doesn’t actually collapse into the Mississippi before you discard the old design, which has successfully avoided such disasters.

Patrick Alexander Gaillard - 8 January 2012

I completely disagree. Popper has no reason for preferring one bridge to the other, because he rejects the idea of confirmation. The fact that one of them might “explain or predict more” means nothing on his theory. There is no way to tell which bridge will (in the future) support more weight, only the knowledge that the first bridge has worked well in the past. Since Popper is an induction skeptic he can not infer that past observations made on the first bridge will reflect future events. Remember, what we know about physics and engineering is entirely dependent on induction so we can’t make any inferences just based on the structural features of these two bridges if we’re to accept Popper’s theory.

You compare this case to astronomy and appeal to the criteria of parsimony, explanatory power, and predictive power. But without induction these concepts are totally empty.

Now for your comments on corroboration. According to Popper, corroboration does not make a hypothesis more likely. If it did, this would mean that confirmation of a hypothesis is possible, and he contends that falsification is all that science can do. Here’s the bottom line: Popperian Falsificationism says that the probability of a hypothesis being true remains the same no matter how much evidence is collected to support it. Therefore, the two bridges are equal in terms of how likely they are to bear weight. This is why virtually all philosophers of science agree that Popper failed to account for science without appealing to induction.

6. poppers - 5 January 2012

This is really fascinating, You’re an overly skilled blogger. I’ve joined your rss feed and look ahead to in search of more of your excellent post. Also, I have shared your website in my social networks

Poppers - 8 March 2012

wow, what a spamy post above. “This is really fascinating.” It should say, I’ve only spammed this blog because of the pagerank of 3 on this page……

A real comment is, you know most of the most amazing things I learned in school were completely dis-proven since I graduated. Like the Brontosaurus, it never existed. Theory and reality in science and knowledge are always being extended.

Sorry comments are closed for this entry


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 31 other followers

%d bloggers like this: