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catallaxy in technical exile

Pasting Popper on the ABC

with 5 comments

There is a weekly philosophy program on the ABC, a radio show, presented by Alan Saunders who studied philosophy at the London School of Economics. One of his teachers was John Worral. Recently he did a program on Imre Lakatos, including an interview with Worral who was a favorite student of Lakatos. This is the transcript.

Lakatos was a lapsed Marxist and when he reached England he became a bitter critic of Marxism. He saw the battle with Marxism very much in terms of defending science from pseudoscience. This put him in line with the positivists although he followed Popper in some ways and never tried to make the distinction in terms of meaning. He wrote “The Communist Party persecuted Mendelians on the ground that their doctrines were pseudoscientific. But then the problem of demarcation between science and pseudoscience is not merely a problem of armchair philosophy, it is of vital social and political relevance“.

Formulating the basic problem

Actually this formulation of the problem in terms of a demarcation between science and psudoscience is radically defective (very bad in layman’s language). It diverts attention away from the comparative merits of rival theories into endless discussion of the nature of science and scientific method, the explication of concepts and the foundation of belief etc. That formulation of the probelm lies at the root of the massive literature that has raged (mostly generating heat rather than light) over the implications of Popper’s ideas. They are generally distorted to a greater or lesser extent, although Popper was partly to blame by his own committment to the idea that the problem of demarcation is fundamental. However the more important issue is the capacity of theories to solve problems (whatever the problems may be, in science or in public policy) and to stand up to criticism and it is not really an issue whether they are classified as scientific because that is a matter of definition.

The most helpful way to think about Popper’s views on falsification is to see them as a commentary on the most effective way to use evidence. It is about evidence, not a definition of science or a theory of knowledge. Popper’s theory of knowledge is best called a non-authoritarian theory of conjectural objective knowledge and it it is very misleading to label it falsificationism because that only concerns a part of a larger structure of ideas about the nature of epistemic authority and the objective status of public knowledge in addition to subjective beliefs which are the focus of most epistemologies.

The definition of science became all important under the influence of the false theory that there was some way to establish scientific theories as “justified true beliefs“. Admittedly the problem shifted from conclusive justification to probability but in the hands of the positivists that was no improvement and the basic “justificationist” motivation remained in place.

Alan Saunders introduced the modern debate over the nature of science with Popper’s 1934 message that a single recalcitrant fact can sink a theory. Actually that is not original to Popper but never mind, it was original in the context of the positivists’ concerns with verification as the criterion of meaning and scientific status. So on the Saunders account “it is not by proving our theories that we make scientific progress; it is by arriving at theories so bold that they can be disproved. When a theory is disproved, we know we’re getting somewhere.”

It is more helpful to say that we make progress when we invent a better theory and it proves its mettle by standing up to tests. Disproving a theory counts as progress several different ways (1) by the elimination of error, (2) narrowing the field of search for better theories and (3) creating new problems which are the growing points of learning.

Saunders on Lakatos

Saunders then quoted a passage from Lakatos that confused the issue with a correct observation – that scientists do not necessarily abandon a theory because facts contradict it – followed by the false conclusion that this invalidated Popper’s views on the most effective way to use evidence. Lakatos appealed to history to trump Popper on logic and methodology but Popper was perfectly well aware of the evasive tactics that can he used. His response was to formulate conventions (rules of the game) that maximise the exposure of theories to tests and sort out which people are playing the game and which are not. So the demarcation at that level is between people and methods who/which maximise the exposure of their theories to tests (and other forms of criticism) and people and methods which fudge the issue in various ways.

This shows the importance of the check on the problem. Popper’s problem was to formulate methods that would maximise criticism (and economise the use of evidence which can be very expensive and time-consuming to obtain). It is not a refutation to point out that some, many or even all people don’t want to be bothered with criticism.

Enter Kuhn along with irrelevant comments (on the couch) to imply that Popper had no idea of the things that happen in real life, despite his association with working scientists in NZ and others like Medawar and Eccles.

Saunders repeated the same (non) criticism of Popper, with attribution to Kuhn, and this was supported by Worral. “What Kuhn was saying was that rather than this sort of neat, sharp picture that Popper was providing of you lay on your couch (sic), you formulate a conjecture, you test that conjecture against evidence and if it survives, then you give it a tick…if it doesn’t survive, then you reject it and you go back to your couch to come up with a new conjecture. What Kuhn pointed out was that this is historically importantly false.”

It is possible to find episodes in the history of science where refutations were rapidly accepted as decisive but that is not really the point, which is that Kuhn/Saunders/Worral have created a straw Popper, like the naive falsificationist Popper who never existed but was useful for Lakatos in his polemics.

Popper described science as a human activity whereby people do their best to advance knowledge by groping in the dark. Logic has a role to play, along with evidence, mathematical calculations, metaphysical speculations, and all the human passions, including the less noble ones, often enough writ large.

He was well aware that observations which appear to contradict theories need to be checked and they need to stand up to counter-arguments. That is why he made the distinction between FALSIFIABILITY (the possibility that a statment could be falsified by a true observation statement) and FALSIFICATION which is inevitably conjectural due to the theory-dependence of observations, the fallibility of observers and experimental equipment, the Duhem problem etc.

Popper on dogmatism

He even went to far as to say that there is a methodological justification for a degree of dogmatism to hang onto a theory in the face of some objections, simply to keep it in the game long enought to find out whether it can be developed instead of throwing it away at the first sign of trouble. Bartley pointed out that the notion of dogmatism is not very helpful in that context, it is enough to say that theories are rendered problematic by contrary evidence and other shortcomings. That just means that more work is required to explore the nature of the problems, to find whether they can be overcome by effective modifications to the theory or by counter-arguments that demolish the credibility of the contrary evidence.

When Popper’s views on the use of evidence are understood in their most robust and helpful form, related to the problems that they were formulated to address, it can be seen that the objections advanced by Kuhn and Lakatos do not fly. Recognition of that simple fact could have saved a great deal of wasted effort in the history and philosophy of science over the last four or five decades.

What value have Kuhn and Lakatos added?

It has been argued that Popper’s account is inadequate because he did not pay attention to the history, psychology and sociology of science, so Kuhn and Lakatos done well to advance the discussion past the point where Popper left it, whether or not he is correct on his own topics of interest.

It that is the case it would have helped if Kuhn and Lakatos had acknowledged what was correct in Popper instead of giving the impression that they had refuted his basic ideas, root and branch. In fact Kuhn did make a major concession in a little-repeated statement in his essay in Criticism and the Growth of Knoweldge, (eds Lakatos and  Musgrave).

I will insert the page number later, but the statement reads something like “Popper’s approach (attempted falsification) is entirely appropriate at times of crisis“. Of course Kuhn was only interested in the crisis preceding revolutions while in contrast for Popper there are mini-crises (open problems, called puzzles by Kuhn) all over the place, depending on the capacity of scientists to be critical and exercise “the sense of wonder” about the work that remains to  be done on unsolved problems.

Popper actually sold himself short by defending his work on demarcation because he had the ideas in hand to outflank the opposition with a more effective rejoinder to their positive programs, so far as they had positive programs to offer.

The paradigms of Kuhn and the research programs of Lakatos can be seen as rather unhelpful formulations of the notion of metaphysical research programs that Popper propounded in the 1950s while he revised his first book. These take account of the programmatic nature of scientific research that Lakatos addressed with his  methodology of programs. Recall that Lakatos  had accces to everything that Popper wrote on MRPs because it was circulating around the London School of Economics in drafts and ms form for thirty years before it was eventually published in the third volume of  The Postscript to the LSD.

The ideas in the MRPs can also stand in for the historical and psychological elements of Kuhn’s paradigms, thought they provide more accessible handles for criticism to eliminate error and make progress. It has yet to be demonstrated how Kuhn’s ideas (or those of Lakatos) actually help working scientists to be more effective as scientists.

The same may be said of Popper’s MRPs but the point is that paradigms and MSRP have been taken up by thousands of people for decades and I am not aware of anyone apart from the Modest Blogger who is serious about making use of the theory of MRPs to systematically advance some area of scientific research.



Written by Admin

November 10, 2006 at 9:41 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses

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  1. As usual v nice. I especially liked the disusson of demarcation.

    You are v kind on Kuhn, whose net contribution to these debates was surely negative. At best he had the idea of a clever undergraduate which was bought by not so clever academics. A nice panoramic view of history that one could encapsulate in a nutshell and which distinguished him from the giants on whose shoulders he could not stand. The problem was it did not stand up to even moderate scrutiny, being both ahistorical and aphilosphical.

    Lakatos, on the other hand, was the real deal. He was smart, said a lot of interesting things and did so interestingly. He, along with most folk who become famous in these worlds (Kuhn and Popper included) also unduly distinguished his ideas from his predecessors (product differentiation) and in so doing, and for other reasons, may have sometimes led us down the garden path. As you suggest, Popper occasionally did the same.

    One slightly more critical comment. One theme that comes out a lot in your writings on Popper, perhaps more than you intend, is that Popper is modern philosophy of science and thought. It seems not only that you think Popper more or less covered off everything that has been discussed in our period better than any subsequent writer, but also that virtually any idea that

    I think you are right that at the end of the day Popper brought us more. It is probably also true that a good deal of what was in Lakatos was in Popper, but that could be said for most great thinkers, especially those who chose broad brush topics and wrote a lot (whether they be Marx or Hayek or more prosaically, Oliver E. Williamson, or, choosing someone who wrote a little about big issues, Coase). It may also be that Lakatos was deeply influenced by Popper’s unpublished ideas, and perhaps did not properly attribute that influence, though that is rather easy to do. When one immerses oneself in another’s thought all sorts of things can reemerge in their own ‘original’ format sometime later. But I think it is somewhat beside the point to be always suggesting Lakatos real accomplishments were really always Popper’s.

    These are hard complex and deeply implicating ideas. Thus it takes a lot of solitary and discussive effort to get things even halfway sorted out. It is clear from your own discussion that Popper himself was not always as clear or sharp or aware as he could have been, and ideas do develop much better from having critics and alternatives (even if ego driven—and aren’t most critical attacks & alternatives somewhat ego driven). Indeed, that is really part of Popper’s message.


    November 11, 2006 at 12:41 am

  2. Hi Rafe,

    I havn’t read your post in detail, I’ve only skimmed over it and will read it properly later on.

    Just thought I’d remark that I’m not sure to what extent people who do mathematical and perhaps scientific work, consciously think about philosophical aspects of science and mathematics 🙂 In mathematics, there certainly are some points of particular outlooks that consciously affect how people go about their work, for example, in whether they consider that proof by contradiction is a valid technique, in obtaining a proof, but I’m not sure to what extent people consciously consider philosophical aspects.

    Just a friendly 2 cents worth of my observations 🙂

    Sacha Blumen

    November 11, 2006 at 3:19 pm

  3. Thanks Kodjo, sometime I should spell out those aspects where I think Popper was wrong, apart from things where he went wrong and retracted, like his attempt to formalise a measure of verisimilitude (truthlikeness) of a theory. His excessive attachment to the importance of demarcation is one.

    In political economy he was not up to speed in economics although he is not as bad as some of the libertarians like to think.

    Sacha, whether or not people consciously think about philosophy, we are all, including scientists and mathematicians, using philosophical assumptions all the time. It can be helpful to become conscious and critical of these assumptions from time to time.

    Rafe Champion

    November 11, 2006 at 9:11 pm

  4. Hi Rafe,

    Nice post. I think that mathematicians are probably aware of philosophical aspects of science even if they don’t know the labels other people have given to them, eg to the different aspects of “truth” and “truthfulness”. I know that I’m aware of at least some of the philosophical aspects of “truth-finding” mentioned in the post without having consciously read about them.

    The para in the post starting with “Popper described science as a human activity whereby people do their best to advance knowledge by groping in the dark.” rings as a good description of my experience, and many of my friend’s experiences, with science.

    Sacha 🙂

    Sacha Blumen

    November 12, 2006 at 6:13 pm

  5. Hi Rafe, in my two comments above I didn’t intend to sound anti-philosophical at all, and I agree that it’s beneficial to be aware of the ideas underpinning scientific thought. Re-reading my comments, I feel I may have come across as anti-philosophical!

    I can’t speak for any other scientifically trained people, but I became quite interested in philosophies underpinning scientific thought in a book by Kuhn on the subject while working in Macquarie Uni library. It was interesting.


    Sacha Blumen

    November 12, 2006 at 6:22 pm

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