I've never had any philosophy training but Im interested in Karl Popper's idea of falsification. Being a
New Zealander his name has "popped" up sorry:) a few times. Can anyone provide a basic defence
for layman like myself of critics of falsification? Can anyone provide a recommend a beginners book
for someone who wants to refute modern criticisms of Popper? How can you defend falsification
against such truths as 1+1=2 or that the earth goes around the sun etc.? Speak to me like a five year
old! Assume nothing!
There seems to be a common misunderstanding that "falsification" is a programm to prove everything
false. But this was never the intention of Popper. His idea was: If you claim that some theory of your
design is right, then you should be able to name at least one test to decide this. If the test comes out
like "A" as predicted, your theory will be confirmed, but if the test comes out like "non A" your theory
will be shown wrong — either completely or at least with respect to those effects this test was testing.
If you claim that "the earth goes around the sun", you should exactly state what this means and how it
could be disproved IF IT IS NOT TRUE. There are so many claims around always: That the stars
govern our fate — or that God does, or that God exists and is the creator of everything, or that the
9-11-assault on the WTC was a fake to get support for war on Afghanistan and Iraq etc.etc.. All those
claims may be justified, but you have to prove it. What Popper was fighting against was a tendency of
all true believers to keep their claims out of any real testing and only offering arguments instead.
Popper was impressed when in 1921 Eddington was able to confirm a certain result following from
Einstein's General Theory of Relativity on the deflection of light by the gravitation of the sun. If this
result would not have turned out as predicted, Einstein would have had to correct or even to drop his
theory. Thus while this observation confirmed Einstein's theory on this prediction, it was at the same
time a chance for falsification, since it offered a possibility to prove the theory wrong — at least in
Thus the idea of "falsifiability" is to tell exactly what results would prove a claim wrong, while in fact
the claim may be justified. What Popper opposed were claims that cannot be proven wrong under any
circumstances. An example is the Christian sect that predicted the end of the world for some day and
hour. When — as usual — this prediction failed, the members of the sect were not at all subdued.
Instead they even felt strengthened since they explained the negative result from their intense praying
that caused God to postpone Doomsday once more. This is what Popper calls an "ultra-stable"
theory: The structure of the theory is such that it cannot be disproven under any circumstances. Thus
if you doubt the Christian concept of sin, then you do so because you are running off from God, or if
you doubt the class-struggle of Marxist theory, then you do so because you are forced by your
True believers — be they Christians or Marxists or UFO-logists or Muslims or whatever — always
claim that their creed cannot be falsified "since it is right". This is the typical misunderstanding of the
concept. Einstein's GTR was proven right by Eddington, but it was "falsifiable", while those creeds are
not. Poppers conclusion was: "If a theory is not falsifiable, then it is very probably false." Any good
and "scientific" theory allows to design some "experimentum crucis", some decisive experiment, that
decides if the theory is false or not.
But there are problems: The fact that a theory is ultrastable does not prove it wrong. The sect of the
example may be right. How will you disprove them? There are people that deny the Holocaust or the
theory of (Neo-Darwinian) evolution etc.. How to disprove them? Thus there sometimes is no single
"experimentum crucis" but only a complicated web of facts and arguments to support some theory or
to make it "improbable". Today we can with the help of satellites etc. demonstrate that the earth is
circling the sun. There even have been photos meanwhile showing earth and sun from Mars or
Jupiter. But in the times of Galileo this was not as easy to prove.
One of the problems is: You can fake many evidences. If somebody claims that the whole of 9-11 or
of Holocaust has been a fake, how will you disprove this? Usually all your information is second-hand.
Thus those who think it is all fake are people that think that the whole world of information is a very
great conspiracy to misinform people in the interest of "big business" or "the Jews" or "the military"
etc., since all photos and reports may be forged by some interested party. If Hollywood can make us
believe anything on screen, why should the mass-media be less able to make us believe anything?
Thus any statement is credible for each of us only in the context of some general assumption on the
nature of the world and on the credibility of theories and information. We even may fall victim to
delusions and errors and misunderstandings. Normally we can clarify these from other evidence.
Thus you know that the actions on the screen in the cinema are not "real" since you take into account
the fact that you are sitting in a cinema. This is confirmed by the rows of seats and the room and
other visitors sitting there etc.. But without such references you may be unsure of what to think of the
true nature of "evidence". And this is the main objection to Popper's program: Since we all judge
evidences in some context and against some background of assumptions and expectations there
often is a situation in which a claim cannot simply be proven or disproven by some single "falsifying"
evidence as in the case of Einstein's prediction. Thus the concept of falsifiability is important, but it is
not the simple separator of truth from error and lies that it seems to be on first sight.
Technically you don't need to defend falsification against such "universal truths" as 1+1=2. Popper
would have said it is a scientific theory because it CAN be falsified. by CAN I don't mean that it is
likely, just that it is logically possible. The statement is worded clearly so that we could test it — it has
what he called good testability. Popper wasn't trying to prove theories false, merely saying that each
one that was falsified led us closer to the truth, whereas trying to confirm theories merely leads us to
skew our results in such as way as to fit our hypotheses. Does that help? if not, email me directly.
There is also a great website on Popper — do a search for 'Popper' and 'Science' and 'Conjectures
Here's a greatbeginner's book on this subject:
Edmonds, D. and J. Eidinow (2001). Wittgenstein's poker: the story of a ten-minute argument
between two great philosophers.New York, NY, Harper Collins, Inc.
The two philosophers are Popper and Wittgenstein. From there... well, you might take a look at the
list I gave to Ning in this same set of answers for further reading. One of the issues here is the
difference between induction and deduction: 1+1=2 is deductivelytrue, i.e., given assumptions you
make about arithmetic, numbers, etc., it follows from those assumptions. But is it true that all crows
are black? That the next crow you see will be black? That the sun will rise tomorrow? Those are
inductive "truths", an entirely different kettle of fish, since they depend, in part, on hypotheses which
cannot simply be assumed, but must be based on evidence. As I said to him, this is a simply
enormous area in philosophy, to be approached with great caution and after much study.
Steven Ravett Brown