Sunday, February 22, 2015

Karl Popper and the Logic of Scientific Discovery

"In so far as a scientific statement speaks about reality, it must be falsifiable; and in so far as it is not falsifiable, it does not speak about reality."

"Those who promise us paradise on earth never produced anything but a hell."

Karl Popper (1902 – 1994) was one of the most influential philosophers of science of the 20th century, and also wrote popular texts on the dangers of Scientism in the aftermath of the Second World War. He was the only child of an upper-middle class Jewish Viennese family. As a young man he flirted with Marxism and psychoanalysis, but was eventually drawn to Logical Positivism. He earned a doctorate of philosophy from the University of Vienna in 1928, fled to New Zealand to escape the national socialist regime in 1937, and moved to Great Britain to teach at the London School of Economics, which he was to remain affiliated with until his death, in 1994.

In The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1937) he proposed Falsification as the identifying characteristic of a legitimate scientific theory, and therefor as a resolution to the Demarcation Problem. On this principle, Marxism and psychoanalysis are not scientific theories, because their nature is such that any and all events can be interpreted within their framework. Einstein’s theory of relativity, on the other hand, is a scientific theory, because it makes specific and testable predictions. A good scientific theory should makes bold, testable predictions. The more counter-intuitive the claim, the more risky it is, and the more revealing it would be if it were not falsified. Importantly, Popper did not believe that science did or could establish what was true, even within its domains of undisputed competence. Rather, he believed that science established what was *not* true through the method of falsification. Theories that survived repeated attempts at falsification had only that quality - for Popper, the scientific attitude remained one of pragmatic skepticism.

In Open Society and Its Enemies (1945) and The Poverty of Historicism (1957) he argued that a misconceived strain of thought within the social sciences, Historicism (a.k.a. Sociology, or Scientism), which sees their principle task as prediction, was both methodologically unsound and politically dangerous. He traced its totalizing claims and totalitarian instinct from Plato to Hegel, Marx, Mannheim, Hitler, and Stalin. In contrast, the Open (a.k.a. liberal) Society has no totalizing pretensions, and therefore permits personal liberties and open criticism. He rejected the holistic and positivist approach to the study of man and society, and the common place that methods in physical and social sciences had to be different on account of differences in subject matter (he held that both methods and subject matter were substantially the same.) He advocated instead that his method of Falsification be adopted in the social sciences, that social scientists confine themselves to making negative predictions, and that social reformers learn to be content with piecemeal reforms rather than the grandiose visions of reshaping human destiny through social engineering projects.

The Open Society and Its Enemies was a part of a large intellectual movement which took its cue from the second world war, and the necessity of explaining the general collapse of civilization in Europe. The need was particularly urgent among German intellectuals, many of whom were directly menaced by the Hitler regime, and had to flee for their lives. This genre includes many modern classics, such as Animal Farm and 1984 (Orwell), Darkness At Noon (Koestler), Origins of Totalitarianism and Eichmann in Jerusalem (Arendt), Dialectic of Enlightenment (Adorno, Horkheimer), Road to Serfdom (Hayek), Atlas Shrugged (Rand), and Two Cocnepts of Liberty (Isaiah Berlin.)

Popper has had a lasting impact on the sciences, where his theory of falsification remains one of the major contenders to satisfy the demarcation problem. His arguments with respect to historical prediction and science of society programs are accepted in some cases (scholars working in the social sciences almost never regard their task as one of prediction) and not in others (sociologists do not believe that their discipline is implicated in the general disaster of communism and the second world war - a matter on which reasonable people can and do disagree.)

Part of a series on Science, Technology, and Society (VI of XX)

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