Sir Karl Popper, a renowned philosopher of the 20th century, challenged existing norms and inspired generations to contemplate the essence of science and methods for uncovering truth. The debate between theory development and scientific validity is significant in scientific inquiry. Within this debate, Popper grappled with determining when a theory can be considered scientific or if there exists a criterion for its scientific status (Popper 1957, p. 1). Born in London, England in 1902 (when my Great Aunt was 4 years old), Popper began wrestling with the clash between “when is theory scientific” and “what are the criteria for determining the scientific nature of a theory” in autumn 1919 (p. #). The issue that troubled Popper most was determining when a theory is true (Popper 1957, p. 1-2). This predicament formed the foundation for his philosophy known as Science as Falsification.
When Popper started working on the development of falsification in 1919, Europe was experiencing widespread social unrest. This period, from 1914 to 1989, has been described as a “protracted European Civil war” (Williams 2005). Additionally, World War I (WWI) was ongoing and communism had spread beyond Germany and Russia to countries such as Hungary and Italy.
Greek forces have occupied Turkey’s Aegean coast due to territorial ambitions, while a flu epidemic is currently causing the death of over 20 million people in China, Europe, and the Americas. In the United States, social principles are evolving as laws are enacted to prohibit alcohol sales and grant women suffrage rights. Amidst this period of social unrest and chaos, Popper embarks on a quest to discover ‘truth’ through scientific explanations. Similarly, other philosophers in the early 20th century also seek to understand and elucidate social phenomena.
Max Weber, Karl Marx, Freidrech Engles, Thorstein Veblen, and George Simmel examine the social disorder of various political revolutions. These philosophers address social theory and provide explanations for multiple aspects of society. In his book, Popper criticizes philosophers for philosophizing without knowledge of facts and describes their ideas as mere fancies. Despite this backdrop, Popper argues that science is based on falsification.
The idea of falsification is about suggesting hypotheses in the quest for scientific understanding. Popper believes that this involves creating creative hypotheses and then looking for evidence or circumstances that contradict them. This quest for evidence that disproves the hypothesis is what defines falsification. Pseudo-science, however, pertains to scientific practices that do not follow the accepted norms of the era but still perform experiments. This raises the question: when can we deem science as valid?
Popper’s explanation for the difference between science and pseudo-science revolves around the example of astrology. Astrologists, who engage in pseudo-scientific experiments, gather observations to create horoscopes or biographies (Popper 1957). To discern between science and pseudo-science, investigators during the 20th century could rely on the method and separate genuine science from pseudo-science. Popper’s rebellion against metaphysical reasoning used to explain social behavior stemmed from the adoption of empirical methods and inductive explanations.
According to Popper (1952), astrology is not considered a pseudo-science, but rather a residual subject of investigation. Disciplines serve as a means to differentiate unified systems in which problems can be taught. Understanding falsification is more crucial than studying specific subjects, as stated by Popper (1952, p. 125). Traditionally, scientists have developed hypotheses to explain natural phenomena they observe. However, Popper emphasizes that a hypothesis should not just offer an explanation, but also predict a phenomenon or behavior. Popper (1952, p. 130) argues that through skillful language analysis, almost any scientific or mathematical book could be proven to contain meaningless pseudo-propositions. Additionally, Popper believes that every hypothesis has the potential for contradiction. He advocates for a strong dedication and passion for problems, rather than accepting plausible and rationalized results from observations.
Popper states that falsification happens when a scientist finds situations that contradict or invalidate the hypothesis. If multiple attempts fail to disprove the hypothesis, the scientist can cautiously accept it as true. However, if the hypothesis is proven false, the scientist must reject it. Thus, Popper not only defines a scientific theory but also offers a framework for scientists. He stresses that a hypothesis should elucidate a phenomenon and make predictions about it.
To improve our understanding of falsification, we can make several claims. First and foremost, a clear problem statement must be formulated to facilitate scientific discovery. Moreover, it is crucial to make efforts to prove the hypothesis false. Furthermore, if the investigation fails to disprove the hypothesis, then it leads to a revelation about the prediction of the original problem. Popper emphasizes that theories cannot provide exhaustive explanations or encompass everything (Klemke et al. 1998). The essential feature of a theory’s ability to be disproven is its fundamental characteristic.
If a theory cannot be disproven, it is not considered scientific. When a theory is proven to be untrue, the scientific community gains knowledge and contributes to the collective understanding of philosophers. Popper’s introduction of falsification helps differentiate between genuine science and pseudo-science. His emphasis on falsification has significantly influenced scientific research, leading to criticism from other philosophers who oppose this concept.
Imre Lakatos critiques Popper’s ideas, specifically focusing on how science is practiced. Lakatos argues that Popper’s concept of falsifiability already encompasses the way science is conducted. According to Lakatos, Popper demands scientists to identify a crucial experiment or observation that can potentially falsify their theories. Refusal to specify such a potential falsifier is considered pseudoscientific by Lakatos (Lakatos 1963). In essence, Lakatos suggests that Popper’s demarcation is not between scientific and pseudoscientific statements, but rather between scientific and non-scientific methods (Lakatos, p. 1).
According to Lakatos (1963), Popper lacks a method for the scientific community to engage in “rational criticism of consistent conventions”. Aiken (1947) raises three specific questions that Popper fails to address: 1) the reliability of historical data as evidence for social laws, 2) the existence of verifiable laws predicting future events in ‘development’, and 3) the possibility of comprehensive laws explaining all social processes. This critique from Lakatos, Aiken, and others has sparked a scientific revolution based on Thomas Kuhn’s (1996) principles.
Aiken, Henry David (1947), “Review: [Untitled],” The Journal of Philosophy, 44 (17), 459-73.
Klemke, E. D., R. Hollinger, D. Rudge, A. (Eds) Klein, and A. (David) Klein (1998), Introductory Readings in the Philosophy of Science: Prometheus Books.
Kuhn, Thomas S. (1996), The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago IL: The University of Chicago Press.
Lakatos, I. (1963), “Proofs and Refutations (2, 3, 4),” The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 14 (54), 120-39.
Popper ,K.R.(1952),”The Nature of Philosophical Problems and Their Roots in Science,” The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science ,3(10 ),124-56.
Popper,Karl(1957), “Science as Falsification,” ed.Cambridge University Peterhouse,London:Mayfield Publishing Company.
Williams ,Hywel(2005),”Cassell’s Chronology of World History,” in Cassell’s Chronology of World History,London:Weidenfeld & Nicolson ,767