Posted by: Nicholas Davis | March 31, 2009

Popper’s principle personified

A nice way of visualizing Popper‘s thoughts on what constitutes “true science”:

Instead of conferring patents of epistemic nobility, lawdoms and theoryhoods, on certain hypotheses, Popper hauled them all before an Anglo-Austrian Tribunal of Revolutionary Empirical Justice. The procedure of the court was as follows: the accused was blindfolded, and the magistrates then formed a firing squad, shooting at it with every piece of possibly-refuting observational evidence they could find.

Conjectures who refused to present themselves might lead harmless lives as metaphysics without scientific aspirations; conjectures detected peaking out from under the blindfold, so as to dodge the Tribunal’s attempts at refutation, were declared pseudo-scientific and exiled from the Open Society of Science.

Our best scientific theories, those Stakhanovites of knowledge, consisted of those conjectures which had survived harsh and repeated sessions before the Tribunal, demonstrated their loyalty to the Open Society by appearing before it again and again and offering the largest target to refutation that they could, and so retained their place in the revolutionary vanguard until they succumbed, or were displaced by another conjecture with even greater zeal for the Great Purge…

Note that the article as a whole, a book review by the aforementiond Cosma Shalizi of Deborah Mayo’s Error and the Growth of Experimental Knowledge, claims in part that Popper’s approach falls down in several ways. Hence the entire review (and, presumably, Mayo’s book too) should be interesting to scientists and philosophers of science in general.

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Responses

  1. For me the main problem with the Popper approach is that it assumes we can prove things wrong quite easily. Most ‘possibly-refuting observational evidence’ is totally ignored.

    We do this all the time – we have one strong official past, present and future, and its so dominant in our minds that its difficult to recognise anything that doesn’t fit into it.

    Check out the Popper-Kuhn debate – sometimes it takes a revolution and paradigm shift before an old ‘truth’ become less popular, or useful (never really falsified).

  2. the challenges in accepting the new are mostly about forgetting the past in order to make space for them.

    I thought popper allowed in enough flexibility in things to work. A hypothesis or “fact” may approach absolute truth assymptotically, but never be allowed go there lest it block a new “fact”.


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