Natural Philosophy: Falsifiability and Pseudo-science 

Once again, this subject choice is brought to you courtesy of Coursera, this time spurred on by an assignment in the course I’m currently undertaking on Philosophy and The Sciences, given in conjunction with the University of Edinburgh and EIDYN: The Edinburgh Centre for Epistemology, Mind and Normativity. Perhaps one of the key contributions which modern philosophy and philosophical thinking (I use this distinction, as our current understanding of physical sciences can be understood as having evolved from “natural philosophy” in the first place) can make to the physical sciences is a better and more rigorous understanding of the underpinnings of scientific paradigms by way of falsifiability, and the use of such criteria to better differentiate “real” science from pseudo-science. Many consider this differentiation a key factor in the difficulties facing science education, particularly in the US, regarding the inability of students, as well as the population at large, to differentiate between popular pseudo-scientific ideas and accepted scientific theories.[1]

Furthermore, this ties into the semantic problem regarding the definition of a “theory”, most commonly associated with the rise in popularity of creationism, particularly in the US, but also in the UK, parts of the Middle East,[2] and elsewhere in the world. Media and public discussion (ever further entwined since the advent of social media and the acceptance of the Twitterverse as a serious source on information on key issues for many people) are rife with blurrings of the lines between science and pseudo-science, most often of the quasi-spiritual, “new age” variety (I’m looking at you, Deepak Chopra) – which, whilst not always objectionable  per se, can be dangerous when presumed to have the same credibility as accepted scientific, falsifiable theories. Though I do not have the time to go into it in more detail here, the concept of scientific theories, such as evolution, being “just a theory”, in the common, unscientific use of the word “theory”, is hopelessly misguided, and the fact that a scientific theory in fact means “an explanation of some aspect of the natural world that has been substantiated through repeated experiments or testing“, is dealt with here, here and here.

 

The importance of the scientific epistemology “falsificationism“, in particular its use to distinguish between science and pseudo-science, was put forward by the Austrian philosopher Karl Popper. The falsifiability or refutability of a statement, hypothesis, or theory is the inherent possibility to prove it to be false. Popper championed falsification as an alternative to the logical positivists’ verification criteria for empirical science, as well as a criterion for distinguishing between science and pseudoscience. The advantage of falsification over verification is that many scientific theories, particularly in the realm of particle physics and the physics and cosmology of the origins of the universe, cannot in a strict sense be verified; nonetheless, they could indeed be directly or indirectly falsified. This allowed such theories be included in the scientific knowledge without having to be associated with other similarly unverifiable claims such as purely metaphysical, religious and pseudo-scientifics ones, which remain problematic under the criterion of falsifiability. As put by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Science and Pseudo-Science:

Popper described the demarcation problem as the “key to most of the fundamental problems in the philosophy of science” (Popper 1962, 42). He rejected verifiability as a criterion for a scientific theory or hypothesis to be scientific, rather than pseudoscientific or metaphysical. Instead he proposed as a criterion that the theory be falsifiable, or more precisely that “statements or systems of statements, in order to be ranked as scientific, must be capable of conflicting with possible, or conceivable observations” (Popper 1962, 39)

Popper presented this proposal as a way to draw the line between statements belonging to the empirical sciences and “all other statements – whether they are of a religious or of a metaphysical character, or simply pseudoscientific” (Popper 1962, 39; cf. Popper 1974, 981).

The entry does indeed point out that there are many criteria by which a distinction between science and pseudo-science may be made, all of which are relevant for the proposal that this distinction is an important contribution which philosophical thinking can make to physical sciences. Accepting this position means that any theory which is unfalsifiable cannot be classified as scientific, and declaring it to be scientifically true is pseudoscience. As Wolfgang Pauli famously stated, of an argument that fails to be scientific because it cannot be falsified by experiment, “…it is not only not right, it is not even wrong!

The requirement for falsifiability goes to the edge of our scientific understanding, encouraging physicists studying the origins of the universe and the possibilities of inflation and the multiverse to seek derived predictions from these models which can then themselves be falsified, as the theories themselves are (by the best understanding we currently have) beyond the horizons of what we can directly or perhaps even indirectly observe. This may be one of the reasons we currently consider our scientific process (somewhat opposed to Thomas Kuhn’s argument about cycles of scientific paradigms) perhaps more rigorous and likely to stand the test of time than in previous ages, because the theories therein are dependent on each other, strive for experimentation and falsification, and are not content to accept that a philosophical-scientific argument cannot be either directly or indirectly falsified. In times when verification or falsification were not seen as necessary – indeed they were almost looked down upon in some schools of thought which believed pure logic was all that was needed to find truth – it is easier to see how these systems were subject to paradigm shifts on the introduction of new ways of thinking or new evidence.

So, not only is there a need to improve the quality of science education, but perhaps even more urgent is the need to introduce, let alone improve, a basic education in the philosophical underpinnings of modern science.[3]  Indeed, in Ireland there are calls for the introduction of Philosophy as a school subject (perhaps a particularly apt replacement for the outdated religious education classes in many countries),[4] as well as initiatives such as www.practicalphilosophy.ie for adults who want to fill this gap in their education background. It’s the old give a man a fish or teach a man to fish decision. If you give people a theory, as universally accepted as it may be, they will only know that they have been told that theory is true, but without teaching them to apply a reasonable level of skepticism and weigh the arguments on their logical and empirical merits, you leave them open to accepting the theory of the next charlatan or pseudo-science salesman who comes along. As Phil Plait, The Bad Astronomer, puts it, “Teach a man to reason, and he’ll think for a lifetime“:

For those of you interested in reading more on the relationship between science and philosophy, I recommend the book Cosmic Apprentice: Dispatches from the Edges of Science by Dorian Sagan. Maria Popova, of www.brainpickings.org, gives an excellent review and overview of the book here. Similarly, an absolute must-read, and one of my personal favourite books is the  1996 work of Dorian Sagan’s father, Carl Sagan, The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. One of the best, and most painfully true, observations made by Sagan in the book is precisely of the untestable, unfalsifiable nature of pseudo-scientific and religious claims. Try as you might, there is always a new reason you cannot test the existence of the dragon in your garage…

~ Shane

Photo Credit: Hubble Heritage via photopin cc


[1] See, for example, National Science Foundation, Science and Engineering Indicatiors 2002, Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Public Understanding: Science Fiction and Pseudoscience, available at  http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind02/c7/c7s5.htm

[2] Ipsos Global @dvisory: Supreme Being(s), the Afterlife and Evolution, available at http://www.ipsos-na.com/news-polls/pressrelease.aspx?id=5217

[3] This problem was already identified by Carl Sagan and discussed at length in his excellent book  The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (Sagan 1996)

[4] Robert Grant, “Philosophy in our schools a necessity, not a luxury”, Irish Times, available at  http://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/religion-and-beliefs/philosophy-in-our-schools-a-necessity-not-a-luxury-1.1970408

See Also:

Popper, Karl, 1962. Conjectures and refutations. The growth of scientific knowledge, New York: Basic Books.

–––, 1974 “Reply to my critics”, pp. 961–1197 in P.A. Schilpp, The Philosophy of Karl Popper, The Library of Living Philosophers, vol xiv, book ii. La Salle: Open Court.

–––, 1976. Unended Quest London: Fontana.

–––, 1978. “Natural Selection and the Emergence of the Mind”, Dialectica, 32: 339–355.

–––, [1989] 1994. “Falsifizierbarkeit, zwei Bedeutungen von”, pp. 82–86 in Helmut Seiffert and Gerard Radnitzky, Handlexikon zur Wissenschaftstheorie, 2nd edition München:Ehrenwirth GmbH Verlag.

 

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