To falsify or not to falsify

Posted by on Jan 2, 2011 in Blog, Papers | No Comments

Science has made tremendous developments in the last 300 years. With every 25 year increments providing a giant leap further to advance our knowledge about our world and nature of our being. The last century alone gave rise to several new radical fields of science such as theoretical physics, astrobiology. Karl Popper, a philosopher of science, based in England proposed the concept of falsificationism in light of the recent developments in science. He stated that, the credibility of the scientific hypothesis is greatly strengthened if it’s falsifiable, i.e., our ability to answer the question, “What sort of evidence could disprove this hypothesis?” Popper was disturbed by different areas of research, labeling them as science such as Astrology which studies horoscopes, Freudianism which delves into the psychoanalysis of mental patients. Poppers idea of falsificationism, though valid for a certain aspects of science, however does not take into account the history of the progress of science, how science works in the current era.

One of the big problems with falsificationism is that it does not consider the fundamental nature of progress of science. According to Popper, if one of the outlying hypotheses is proved to be falsifiable and is falsified, then the whole theory is thrown out. Lee Smolin, a renowned theoretical physicist, points out in his book “The problem with physics” that, the progress in the field of theoretical physics is often made after several wrong attempts. From the discussions in our lecture, I came to know that Newton’s fundamentals laws of nature are not universally true but are still taught in school. In addition, Smolin in his talk stated that he was a high school dropout and in order to learn theoretical physics, one does not need to know about Newtonian physics at all, which is what the whole high school physics curriculum is based on. The current state of research is completely different from that as of the past and there is a disjoint between the education, research and the progress of science from the past. I think falsificationism doesn’t take into account of the outlying factors involved in the progress of science.

In Smolin’s book, he talks about his mentor Paul Feyerabend, a scientist turned philosopher, who did a bit of acting before turning into science and philosophy. He says that his acting background enabled him to take any sides of an argument and win the philosophical debate while in college. This intrigued me to think that, when one has a very solid argument there would be some who could say otherwise and falsify it and if we had followed Poppers idea then a valid progress in science could be deterred. Smolin recounts a statement by Feyerabend when he was in the professional crisis “Good science is whatever works at a particular moment in history to advance our knowledge (Smolin, Pg. 290). What works for science at one moment might be wrong at another. (Smolin, Pg. 290) and this is the inevitably of the field of science as, if one does not come up with revolutionary new idea and how can we aim to achieve real progress. This point is proven by the seldom known fact that great pioneers in physics like Newton who spent more time on alchemy and Kepler who spent more time on astrology than in the field they have been known for making breakthroughs, physics (Smolin, Pg. 292) I really like the approach Linda, my professor in the one of the knowledge integration courses, where she asks the questions what is the weakest link that could be broken. What can we break without compromising the whole problem to find solutions and finally what is the next best answer.

Popper came up with the idea of falsifiability in early 1900s to set a standard of distinguishing something between science and pseudoscience. However merits falsifiability has it has its limitations. It does not take into account the progress of science through the ages, its methodology of discarding possibly a strong and valid theory based on one of its weakest links. This is shown through the theoretical physics study where, often theories cannot necessarily be falsifiable due to the reason that for current problems the solution is that much more complex, than what was in the past .This doesn’t necessarily mean that it is false, just that it could not be experimentally proved as of yet. By continuing to progress along these paths we would definitely find solutions and answers to the greatest scientific questions of our time and for our future.

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