Falsification: Karl Popper’s guide to telling real science from pseudoscience

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Jonny Thomsonhttps://www.amazon.co.uk/Mini-Philosophy-Small-Book-Ideas/dp/1472282175
Jonny Thomson teaches philosophy in Oxford. He runs a popular Instagram account called Mini Philosophy (@philosophyminis) where he’s easily contactable. His first book is Mini Philosophy: A Small Book of Big Ideas, which unpacks philosophy in a fun and engaging manner using minimalist imagery. The book moves from looking at the everyday facets of life, like insomnia or parenthood, to meaty philosophical puzzles, like the meaning of life and consciousness.

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It can feel, at times, as if there’s a deafening barrage of misinformation, pseudoscience and propaganda. It can feel like there’s no easy way to tell up from down, and right from wrong. How many times have you wished that there was a simple way to call out the charlatans, quacks and the snake oil peddlers? A way to tell the pseudoscience from real science? A simple tool to give truth to the lie?

This is exactly what Karl Popper was concerned with, and his ‘Falsification’ is not only a bedrock of the scientific method, but it can act as a hugely practical and effective tool for everyday scepticism.

Hume’s Problem and Popper’s Solution

Popper’s theory first took form as an attempt both to resolve David Hume’s Problem of Induction and improve on the failings of what is known as “Verificationism”.

In brief, this is the problem that states that, no matter how many times we observe something, we can never say something ‘definitely is’ the case. Not only is it nigh on impossible to measure all of something, there’s also no philosophically watertight reason that the future has to be like the past. Any observation of how things are at the moment, or how they have been, cannot rationally prove that those things must hold true in the future. In Hume’s words:

“It is impossible, therefore, that any arguments from experience can prove this resemblance of the past to the future”.

Let us take an example. Imagine we’re good scientists, and have done a lot of fieldwork studying bats. We’ve noted their nocturnal habits, and so make the claim “all bats are nocturnal”. Hume’s Problem says that, firstly, this is unjustified because we have not examined all bats, everywhere. But, more devastatingly, even if we did measure all bats, everywhere, we cannot promise or guarantee that “all bats will always be nocturnal”. Tomorrow, a particularly industrious bat might decide to put in some early morning work.

All science is based on induction of this kind, and philosophers since Hume have seen this doubt as a huge problem for the scientific method. If induction cannot be justified, or has no rational basis, then what does that mean for science?

Popper’s solution is a subtle and intelligent way out. He argued that a scientific statement is not proven but it is simply not yet disproved. Science does not verify things, per se, but rather seeks to provide contrary data points to a theory. So, gravity is a strong scientific law because, despite all the dropped things over the centuries, it still stubbornly insists on smashing them to bits. Or, every time I see a nocturnal bat, I’m disproving the statement, “bats are diurnal” (as it happens, bats aren’t all nocturnal, but most are).

How Popper takes on pseudoscience

According to Falsification, then, a proposition, theory or hypothesis is only as strong as how far it can resist falsifying evidence.

And this fits well with the history of science. So often in the past it’s been common for various theories to be accepted until something comes along to prove otherwise. For instance, thanks to Hippocrates and then Galen, the “humoral theory” was viewed as established biology. This argued that all disease was due to an imbalance of four fluids in our body. This was “true” until sufficient evidence was presented to falsify it; that is to say, we discovered cellular pathology. So, we now had another theory of disease, and all subsequent experiments show that this isn’t wrong (yet).

Not only does Popper change how we understand science, but he also offers us a hugely helpful tool to use in combatting pseudoscience. Under Falsification, if a theory cannot be falsified, where no possible evidence can disprove it, then it must be dismissed as quackery and hokum.

Popper, himself, applied his theory (quite aggressively, at times) to Marxism and psychoanalysis.

With Marxism, Popper thought that a lot of Marx’s historical arguments started out as genuinely scientific and meaningful analyses. Marx, for instance, gave a quite specific account of “the coming social revolution”. Yet, when such a revolution failed to manifest in the way that Marx predicted, Popper believed Marxists “reinterpreted both the theory and the evidence” and so made their overall position unfalsifiable. They had “made it irrefutable”.

With psychoanalysis (particularly that of Freud and Adler), Popper saw much of the same. For instance, presented with a man who seemingly has no object-obsession with his mother (a falsifying data point against Freudianism), the Freudian could reply ‘Ah! Well, it’s just repressed! It’ll be there’. Everything about a person, every character trait, every utterance, every action came to be refashioned to fit psychoanalysis. Popper’s question would be, what would it take for psychoanalysis to be wrong? He believed there wasn’t anything.

How we can use Popper

We can all use Falsification to help us wade through a world of fake news, superstition and conspiracy theories.

For instance, let us suppose an astrologer tells you, “People who are Aquarius are easy going”, and you reply with, “Actually my best friend is an Aquarian, and he’s the most highly-strung guy I know”. How do they respond? If they admit this is a contrary datapoint, and they’ll need to revise their theory, then Popper and sceptics everywhere ought to be quite happy. Most often, this doesn’t happen. The evidence, in some way, is explained away: “Oh, I bet he’s easy-going when he’s comfortable” or “Oh, he was born in 1986?! That year was different”.

Or, suppose someone believes that 9/11 was an inside job. You might show them evidence that a jet plane can and does bring down a building like the World Trade Centre, or that jet fuel has been proven again and again to melt steel-framed buildings. But, if they then say “Oh, that scientist was paid to say that” or “They’re lying”, there’s no way out of it – you’re dealing with pseudoscience. Again, conspiracy theories beg the question: what will it take to disprove their theory?

Of course, we’re all human and we’re all guilty of confirmation bias, where we’ll seek out things that agree with our views, but Popper offers us a great way to examine and improve our own beliefs. So, if a friend ever offers to read your fortune or tells you that the world is run by extra-terrestrial reptiles, ask them what fact would make them abandon their view? If they say none, take Popper’s advice, and walk away.

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