Tuesday, April 05, 2016

We Have Naive Falsification, and We Have...


"Sir Karl [Popper] is not, of course, a naive falsificationist. He knows all that has just been said and has emphasized it from the beginning of his career...: 'In point of fact, no conclusive disproof of a theory can ever be produced; for it is always possible to say that the experimental results are not reliable or that the discrepancies which are asserted to exist between the experimental results and the theory are only apparent and they will disappear with the advance of our understanding.' [But] having barred conclusive disproof, he has provided no substitute for it, and the relation he does employ remains that of logical falsification. Though he is not a naive falsificationist, Sir Karl may, I suggest, legitimately be treated as one." -- Thomas Kuhn, "Logic of Discovery or Psychology of Research"

So we have two sorts of falsificationists:

1) The naive ones, who think, "Well, an experiment didn't agree with your theory, so chuck it out!" These people are usually not professionals in the history or philosophy of science, but, having got a hold of a single simple idea, think they are now experts in these fields. They show up in debates on trendy topics all the time: "Last winter's temperatures didn't agree with the global warming models, so it's been falsified!" or "Card-Krueger proves that increasing prices won't reduce demand!" (I am not trying to enter into these debates themselves, only to point out that they can't be resolved with a single experiment / study.) Or we have this example.

2) The sophisticated falsificationists, like Popper, who recognize that the naive view is nonsense, and in its place, they put... well, nothing that should be called "falsificationism." What actually fills this role is educated scientific judgment, and it takes into account many factors, such as contrary experimental results, and positive experimental results (which to some extent confirm theories!), and theoretical elegance (an elegant theory may survive a lot of "falsification"!*), and what rival theories that might be adopted in lieu of the one being tested. (As Kuhn notes, scientists never abandon a theory in favor of nothing, but only in favor of another theory.)

* Heliocentrism survived several centuries of failure to detect any stellar parallax.

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