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I thought I would share something I just recently learned about a hero of the scientific community.  I adore the fact that his ideas from 1963 can be used TODAY to fight ignorance in the field of Christian-based pseudoscience.

Austro-British Philosopher, Karl Popper.

His importance (to science, at least) lies in the fact that he, in 1963, wrote published a paper that has since been used to define a very important demarcation between science and pseudoscience.  Many of you already know the importance of this, if you care about keeping pseudoscience like Intelligent Design and Young-Earth Creationism out of our public-school science classrooms.

Science, among other things, has always been about empiricism, observation and predictability.  But those attributes alone weren't completely successful at keeping pseudoscience from being accepted as science.  Many people don't understand that science isn't out to (nor can it) prove anything.  Just because you devise an experiment that shows your theory to be valid here and now, doesn't mean that it can prove that it is in all places at all times.

This is precisely the problem that Popper had been thinking about since 1919.  His paper was published in 1963.  That's 44 years of careful deliberation on these ideas.

The paper is entitled "Science as Falsification."

What it states, in a nutshell, is that for a theory to be scientific, it must have, amongst other well-established attributes, the attribute of falsifiability.  The theory must BE falsifiable.  What struck me is that this was proposed as late as 1963.  I had always included it in the scientific method.  And although it may have been there in spirit, Popper stated it rather persuasively and definitively.

Popper describes in his paper, first, exactly how he came about studying this particular problem (since this paper is now in the public domain, I will quote it liberally):

After the collapse of the Austrian empire there had been a revolution in Austria: the air was full of revolutionary slogans and ideas, and new and often wild theories. Among the theories which interested me, Einstein's theory of relativity was no doubt by far the most important. The three others were Marx's theory of history, Freud's psycho-analysis, and Alfred Adler's so-called "individual psychology."

There was a lot of popular nonsense talked about these theories, and especially about relativity (as still happens even today), but I was fortunate in those who introduced me to the study of this theory. We all—the small circle of students to which I belong—were thrilled with the result of Eddington's eclipse observations which in 1919 brought the first important confirmation of Einstein's theory of gravitation. It was a great experience for us, and one which had a lasting influence on my intellectual development.


It was the summer of 1919 that I began to feel more and more dissatisfied with these three theories—the Marxist theory of history, psycho-analysis, and individual psychology; and I began to feel dubious about their claims to scientific status. My problem perhaps first took the simple form, "What is wrong with Marxism, psycho-analysis, and individual psychology? Why are they so different from physical theories, from Newton's theory, and especially from the theory of relativity?"

What Karl talks about next could easily be applied to the power (for many Christians, anyway) of some of today's pseudoscience, namely Intelligent Design...
I found that those of my friends who were admirers of Marx, Freud, and Adler, were impressed by a number of points common to these theories, and especially by their apparent explanatory power. These theories appear to be able to explain practically everything that happened within the fields to which they referred. The study of any of them seemed to have the effect of an intellectual conversion or revelation, open your eyes to a new truth hidden from those not yet initiated. Once your eyes were thus opened you saw confirmed instances everywhere: the world was full of verifications of the theory. Whatever happened always confirmed it. Thus its truth appeared manifest; and unbelievers were clearly people who did not want to see the manifest truth; who refuse to see it, either because it was against their class interest, or because of their repressions which were still "un-analyzed" and crying aloud for treatment.

I could not think of any human behavior which could not be interpreted in terms of [these three theories]. It was precisely this fact—that they always fitted, that they were always confirmed—which in the eyes of their admirers constituted the strongest argument in favor of these theories. It began to dawn on me that this apparent strength was in fact their weakness.

How many times have we seen Intelligent Design adherents produce "evidence" that their "theory" was obviously true?
With Einstein's theory the situation was strikingly different. Take one typical instance — Einstein's prediction, just then confirmed by the finding of Eddington's expedition. Einstein's gravitational theory had led to the result that light must be attracted by heavy bodies (such as the sun), precisely as material bodies were attracted. As a consequence it could be calculated that light from a distant fixed star whose apparent position was close to the sun would reach the earth from such a direction that the star would seem to be slightly shifted away from the sun; or, in other words, that stars close to the sun would look as if they had moved a little away from the sun, and from one another. This is a thing which cannot normally be observed since such stars are rendered invisible in daytime by the sun's overwhelming brightness; but during an eclipse it is possible to take photographs of them. If the same constellation is photographed at night one can measure the distance on the two photographs, and check the predicted effect.

Now the impressive thing about this case is the risk involved in a prediction of this kind. If observation shows that the predicted effect is definitely absent, then the theory is simply refuted. The theory is incompatible with certain possible results of observation—in fact with results which everybody before Einstein would have expected. This is quite different from the situation I have previously described, when it turned out that the theories in question were compatible with the most divergent human behavior, so that it was practically impossible to describe any human behavior that might not be claimed to be a verification of these theories.

Popper then condenses his ideas into the following conclusions:
1.    It is easy to obtain confirmations, or verifications, for nearly every theory — if we look for confirmations.

2.    Confirmations should count only if they are the result of risky predictions; that is to say, if, unenlightened by the theory in question, we should have expected an event which was incompatible with the theory — an event which would have refuted the theory.

3.    Every "good" scientific theory is a prohibition: it forbids certain things to happen. The more a theory forbids, the better it is.

4.    A theory which is not refutable by any conceivable event is non-scientific. Irrefutability is not a virtue of a theory (as people often think) but a vice.

5.    Every genuine test of a theory is an attempt to falsify it, or to refute it. Testability is falsifiability; but there are degrees of testability: some theories are more testable, more exposed to refutation, than others; they take, as it were, greater risks.

6.   Confirming evidence should not count except when it is the result of a genuine test of the theory; and this means that it can be presented as a serious but unsuccessful attempt to falsify the theory. (I now speak in such cases of "corroborating evidence.")

7.   Some genuinely testable theories, when found to be false, are still upheld by their admirers — for example by introducing ad hoc some auxiliary assumption, or by reinterpreting the theory ad hoc in such a way that it escapes refutation. Such a procedure is always possible, but it rescues the theory from refutation only at the price of destroying, or at least lowering, its scientific status. (I later described such a rescuing operation as a "conventionalist twist" or a "conventionalist stratagem.")

One can sum up all this by saying that the criterion of the scientific status of a theory is its falsifiability, or refutability, or testability.

Remember, adherents of Intelligent Design do NOT have as their priority, the advancement of science, rationality, or the enlightenment of humankind.  They have, as their priority, the indoctrination of children into their religion.  This fact was proved most handily by the plaintiffs in the Dover, PA Intelligent Design trial.

Also remember this:  If you are drawn into a discussion about Intelligent Design, don't be coerced into discussing the "merits" of the "theory."  Stay on topic, by continually stating that as it isn't science, it has no business being taught AS science in a public-school science classroom.  Then refer to the Dover ruling.

I hope this diary will help you in your cause.  It sure has helped me.

Some intriguing parts of the Dover ruling:

ID's backers have sought to avoid the scientific scrutiny which we have now determined that it cannot withstand by advocating that the controversy, but not ID itself, should be taught in science class. This tactic is at best disingenuous, and at worst a canard. The goal of the IDM is not to encourage critical thought, but to foment a revolution which would supplant evolutionary theory with ID.
The overwhelming evidence at trial established that ID is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory.
After a searching review of the record and applicable caselaw, we find that while ID arguments may be true, a proposition on which the Court takes no position, ID is not science. We find that ID fails on three different levels, any one of which is sufficient to preclude a determination that ID is science. They are: (1) ID violates the centuries-old ground rules of science by invoking and permitting supernatural causation; (2) the argument of irreducible complexity, central to ID, employs the same flawed and illogical contrived dualism that doomed creation science in the 1980s; and (3) ID's negative attacks on evolution have been refuted by the scientific community. …It is additionally important to note that ID has failed to gain acceptance in the scientific community, it has not generated peer-reviewed publications, nor has it been the subject of testing and research. Expert testimony reveals that since the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, science has been limited to the search for natural causes to explain natural phenomena. (page 64) [for "contrived dualism", see false dilemma.]

And the Dover decision's relevancy to this diary? has been a discipline in which testability, rather than any ecclesiastical authority or philosophical coherence, has been the measure of a scientific idea’s worth.
And "testability" includes Popper's "falsifiability"

And if that doesn't nail their disingenuous asses to the wall............just tell them that the judge who decided Dover, was a George W. Bush appointee.

Originally posted to AlyoshaKaramazov on Thu Jul 04, 2013 at 01:07 PM PDT.

Also republished by SciTech.

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Comment Preferences

  •  One of my favorites. (16+ / 0-)

    One of the greatest philosophers of the last century that few have heard about. Check out Wittgenstein's Poker for a slice of life at Cambridge and the great debate between two giants, hosted by Bertrand Russell. And if you think you might want to read more of Popper, you can ease in with the more accessible The Poverty of Historicism. The Logic of Scientific Discovery is a tough read. Nice holiday diary. Many thanks.

    Facts don't stop being facts just because no one listens to them. - Aldous Huxley

    by bisleybum on Thu Jul 04, 2013 at 01:23:24 PM PDT

  •  Nifty diary. Had not heard of Popper (not (15+ / 0-)

    being a formal student... ever), and much appreciate the introduction.

    Thank you!

    "Throwing a knuckleball for a strike is like throwing a butterfly with hiccups across the street into your neighbor's mailbox." -- Willie Stargell

    by Yasuragi on Thu Jul 04, 2013 at 01:27:48 PM PDT

  •  This is great. I'm delighted to see a great (10+ / 0-)

    overview of Popper here.  His work in the philosophy of science and on social issues has had a great influence on me.  As to the latter, his advice, based on a falsification perspective, of minimizing avoidable suffering has been one of the best ignored suggestions in dealing with social problems I know.

    The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt. Bertrand Russell

    by accumbens on Thu Jul 04, 2013 at 01:33:23 PM PDT

  •  I knew Dr. Popper. (15+ / 0-)

    Very interesting man and a delight to have a conversation with on almost any subject.

    "We have cast our lot with something bigger than ourselves" - President Obama, July 30, 2010

    by Overseas on Thu Jul 04, 2013 at 01:35:46 PM PDT

    •  Have you written about him here? (11+ / 0-)

      I would love to a first-hand perspective like that.

      Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

      by pico on Thu Jul 04, 2013 at 01:54:36 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  No, I haven't written (12+ / 0-)

        about him ever. I knew him in the late 60's and early 70's when he was doing work for the Dept. of Ag. He and my husband were both research chemists and they have at least one patent together. I was busy working and having our daughter, and we would join Karel for dinner from time to time. I don't even remember any specific thing we discussed, but the evenings always flew by. He had a good sense of humor. I used to save his Christmas cards but I think I finally threw them out [How stupid that was!] Man, that is a very long time ago.

        "We have cast our lot with something bigger than ourselves" - President Obama, July 30, 2010

        by Overseas on Thu Jul 04, 2013 at 02:00:08 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  If you ever change your mind, (7+ / 0-)

          please shoot me a note: even this short comment was really interesting.  

          Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

          by pico on Thu Jul 04, 2013 at 02:04:47 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

          •  If I remember anything over the next days, (5+ / 0-)

            I will send you a note. I think I met him for the first time when we were on vacation in Hawaii, but, of course, my husband knew him far longer. A bunch of the Ag people went for Chinese food in some obscure but terrific local restaurant, and Karel was there. That was a dinner to remember. Karel was liked by everyone.

            "We have cast our lot with something bigger than ourselves" - President Obama, July 30, 2010

            by Overseas on Thu Jul 04, 2013 at 03:44:24 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

          •  Messages aren't working, so (4+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Matthias, Randtntx, pico, VeggiElaine

            The memories are still evasive. I pulled one of my old address books and he was living in Danville, California at that time. I have a vague memory that he lived with his mother before her death.
            There were a bunch of scientists that found themselves together, worked together and spent time together after work. All brilliant, and they all loved to argue the world's problems. After Karel left California, he would still fly in to attend conferences even when they were not too exciting. Mostly the guys would all get together and play poker for hours each evening and argue whatever the topic of that day might be. They could and often did argue both sides of an issue - it was the interplay of the intellects that was important. The California men would make a "goodie" box up containing samples of all the products they had all run experiments on since the last conference and that box was presented to Karel to take home; he enjoyed that.
            The only other thing I can remember right now was when my husband called to tell me that Karel has passed away, so sad.
            They are all gone now passing one by one.

            "We have cast our lot with something bigger than ourselves" - President Obama, July 30, 2010

            by Overseas on Fri Jul 05, 2013 at 01:33:56 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

          •  I may have a picture of him (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            from the 60's on top of Muana Kea [or Muana Loa?]. Most of my pictures were destroyed in a flood, but I'll look

            "We have cast our lot with something bigger than ourselves" - President Obama, July 30, 2010

            by Overseas on Fri Jul 05, 2013 at 03:25:48 AM PDT

            [ Parent ]

    •  Id like to hear more (0+ / 0-)

      The impression I have gotten is that he was personally dogmatic to the point that it was said that his Open Society and its Enemies should have been titled, Open Society BY its enemy. Supposedly he was the terror of any philosopher who dared start his talk with the question as to WHAT something was. I am glad to hear otherwise.

  •  Nice. Love seeing Popper in SciTech! (8+ / 0-)

    Thanks Ojibwa for reposting and thank you Alyosha for writing it.

  •  This is great, (12+ / 0-)

    and I especially like Popper's skepticism of ideological narrative: he considered Charles Peirce, the father of American pragmatism, a personal hero.

    Saint, n. A dead sinner revised and edited. - Ambrose Bierce

    by pico on Thu Jul 04, 2013 at 01:57:04 PM PDT

  •  The paper is older (11+ / 0-)

    The text published in Conjectures and Refutations is from a lecture delivered in 1953. Popper published other versions of the same argument earlier, though I do not have my bookshelf with me to track down the details. Creationists like to cite Popper's early use of Darwin as an example of pseudoscience (along with Freud and Marx), one which Popper later recanted as he realized he misread Darwin (he was arguing about the logic of the survival of the fittest) and also realized that Darwin's reasoning worked as a model for his own theory of philosophical development.

    Darwin, incidentally, threw in a similar argument about falsifiability in the concluding chapter of the Descent of Man.

  •  This selection (6+ / 0-)

    The selection you link to here I think is the clearest and most accessible version of the argument and works well in undergraduate classrooms.

    There have been some important criticisms, most notably by Imre Lakatos, of the concept he dismisses  here as 'conventionalism'.  For an application to social science, see Michael Burawoys' writings on the logic of ethnography.

  •  Thanks for this (5+ / 0-)

    In the 1960s, I took a series of classes in philosophy of science from Herbert Feigl at the U. of MN as part of a graduate program in science education.

    Our science education system tends to focus on science trivia rather than the nature of science. This leads to public (and member of congress) acceptance of "intelligent design," global climate change denial, and a reliance on ideology and/or religion rather than evidence to decide questions that could be answered by science. Science includes the social sciences as well as the natural sciences.

  •  Thank you for this (4+ / 0-)

    It's dead on.

    Funny how the anchors of scientific knowledge don't change but the creationist views constantly change to fit the situation. Whatever it takes to confirm what they already believe is good to go with them.

    Outright lies are OK in the pursuit of their prejudices.

  •  Popper wrote possibly the greatest (7+ / 0-)

    takedown of Plato ever written in The Open Society and Its' Enemies..

    •  Let me add something at the link. (9+ / 0-)
      Popper divorced Plato's ideas from those of Socrates, claiming that the former in his later years expressed none of the humanitarian and democratic tendencies of his teacher. In particular, he accuses Plato of betraying Socrates in the Republic, wherein he portrays Socrates sympathizing with totalitarianism
      That's actually true.

      Unless you were deep into the classical languages, prior to Popper, Plato's Socrates and the actual Socrates were pretty much one and the same.

      Now it's rather commonplace even in a beginning philosophy course for the professor to make the distinction between what Socrates taught and thought and what Plato  taught and thought and Popper should (and does) get a lot of credit for that.

  •  "Science is always willing to be proven wrong." (7+ / 0-)

    I don't remember where I read this, but it's the most succinct and simple statement I've seen of the difference between science and ID.

    Of course, the definition of "proven" can be slippery when you're dealing with people who don't understand what "theory" means...

    "I believe they talked of me, for they laughed consumedly."--George Farquhar

    by slapshoe on Thu Jul 04, 2013 at 04:35:03 PM PDT

  •  Popper had some valid criticisms (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    of non-scientific and anti-scientific theories.

    But his work is only one part of a large discipline of philosophy of science, which continues to evolve.

    The sciences are complex. On the one hand in the main they aspire to objectivity (although quite a few social scientists don't see this as achievable, or even necessarily desirable). On the other hand, even the "hard" sciences are practiced by human beings who exist in the context of a society and culture and are subject to human passions and prejudices.

    Popper was involved in a lengthy and inconclusive controversy with adherents of the Marxist-inspired Frankfurt School of sociology. Popper was very anti-communist and in particular anti-Soviet and this colored his thinking. He had some valid criticisms of Marx but the more modern-day Frankfurt School philosophers didn't necessarily take Marx literally and wholesale.

    •  ereeeee (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      What had a profound effect on him was an event that happened in 1919: during a riot, caused by the Communists, the police shot several people, including some of Popper's friends. When Popper later told the leaders of the Communist party about this, they responded by stating that this loss of life was necessary in working towards the inevitable workers' revolution. This statement did not convince Popper and he started to think about what kind of reasoning would justify such a statement. He later concluded that there could not be any justification for it, and this was the start of his later criticism of historicism.

      I'm not an athiest. How can you not believe in something that doesn't exist? That's way too convoluted for me. - A. Whitney Brown

      by AlyoshaKaramazov on Fri Jul 05, 2013 at 07:47:24 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  when I hear the name Popper, I reach for a poker (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    AlyoshaKaramazov, VeggiElaine
    On 25 October 1946, Popper (then at the London School of Economics), was invited to present a paper entitled "Are There Philosophical Problems?" at a meeting of the Moral Sciences Club, which was chaired by Wittgenstein. The two started arguing vehemently over whether there existed substantial problems in philosophy, or merely linguistic puzzles—the position taken by Wittgenstein. In Popper's, and the popular account, Wittgenstein used a fireplace poker to emphasize his points, gesturing with it as the argument grew more heated. When challenged by Wittgenstein to state an example of a moral rule, Popper (later) claimed to have replied "Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers", upon which (according to Popper) Wittgenstein threw down the poker and stormed out. Wittgenstein's Poker collects and characterizes the accounts of the argument, as well as establishing the context of the careers of Popper, Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell, also present at the meeting.

    Warning - some snark may be above‽ (-9.50; -7.03)‽ eState4Column5©2013 "I’m not the strapping young Muslim socialist that I used to be" - Barack Obama 04/27/2013

    by annieli on Thu Jul 04, 2013 at 09:24:46 PM PDT

  •  I think what we miss about the Cons is that (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    they are entirely self-centered. One could say that their perspective is focused on themselves, except for the fact that "perspective" means "to look around" and they don't look around. So, they have no perspective. Nor, for that matter, do they even see themselves. Their eyes take in images, but the images have no meaning. I imagine it is comparable to eating without tasting. The sensory input effects no change.

    Considered in that context, intelligent design is merely an assertion of the primacy of intellect, the unique human attribute which makes man special. Intelligent design isn't about the universe, that which surrounds the individual person, but about that individual's origin. It is a godless definition of why a human being is important -- because he was made to be intelligent, on purpose. Intelligent design is an assertion that man is not a happenstance, not an accident of nature, but the result of an idea. It goes along with the proposition, espoused by ExxonMobile, that "all it takes is the idea." If man thinks it, then it exists. Which leads to the corollary that if a thing is not to exist, man must not think about it. The proponents of intelligent design would control reality by not thinking about bad things. Or, more correctly, by not letting bad mental images in. Bad images might prompt bad behavior in response. "All it takes is the idea." Mind controls matter. Intellect is the key to man's superiority. It isn't necessary to say "God made man to know Him." One can strip God out and be left with the assertion that man knowing is the essence and purpose of his existence. There is no need to DO anything -- a great consolation to people who often find themselves in distressed situations.
    "Intelligent by design" is how it should read. Or, even more accurately, "I am intelligent by design and that makes me important," but saying that would either be boasting or leave oneself open to a challenge. "I believe in intelligent design," is an objective assertion that is not open to challenge. Belief isn't. That's what's good about it.
    I think a comparison to the difference between a still camera and a movie camera is might be illuminative (note how understanding is related to light). Both cameras actually record static images. The movie camera records more quickly and plays them back at a rate (30 images per second) which the human eye perceives as motion. Images in quick succession are perceived as fluid motion. One could say the movie camera adds the motion, but it's really a matter of perception, sequence and time. So, imagine a brain that doesn't "see" sequence or order or time. What if all impressions are static and unrelated? (Why do we call unordered noise static?) Is 30 images per second too quick for some brains to record? Do some people not see motion at all? Do they not perceive change and does that account for why they can't believe it?
    The Cons employe euphemisms (things that sound good) as a matter of routine. Do they also employ a shorthand, routinely saying less than they mean? Is the cost/benefit phrase which actually means "you bear the cost from which I get the benefit," just one of many? Is what we call lying merely the consequence of things left out, truths half said, half truths which mislead? Are we being misled on purpose or are we simply assuming that everyone's thoughts are processed, as are ours, when they are merely reflections?

    If some people's utterances or expressions are merely reflections, or a regurgitation of what went in, then the call for transparency actually makes sense. Looking through something provides more information than a mere reflection from a mirror. I'd still prefer "inspection" and open records. However, if the data are not ordered, but merely collected and hoarded, then there's no information to be gleaned.

    We organize governments to deliver services and prevent abuse.

    by hannah on Fri Jul 05, 2013 at 02:27:11 AM PDT

    •  fascinating comments, hannah (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      both here and over in '4 paragraphs'... been bumping into things all afternoon, lost in thought.

      thx for taking the time - sincerely appreciated

      Money speaks for money, the devil for his own... Who comes to speak for the skin and the bone?

      by LeftOverAmerica on Fri Jul 05, 2013 at 01:03:50 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

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