In 1972 Jeremy Shearmur reminded me to be alert to the difference between falsifiability and falsification. He was Popper’s research assistant at the time so he was well placed to offer this kind of advice. Unfortunately I did not take it on board, being obsessed with the bigger picture of Popper’s ideas and what they could do for problem-solving of all kinds, from the theory of literature to the integration of the human sciences and humanitarian social reforms.It is only in the last year or so that the import of that reminder has dawned upon me, as I contemplate with fresh eyes the mess that philosophers have made of Popper’s ideas by defining him as a “falsificationist” without attention to the bigger picture and especially the difference between the LOGIC of testing and his proposals regarding the SCIENTIFIC METHOD . The latter is something which he insisted did not exist, despite the fact, as he reminded his students, that he occupied a chair of Logic and Scientific Method!
The dual responsibilities of that Chair can be used as a hint to make a demarcation, or at least a clear distinction between two aspects of Popper’s thoughts – on the one side the logical critique of induction and on the other his work on conventions, traditions and institutions, the “rules of the game” of science and his start on the constitution for the republic of science (this side of his contribution is beautifully described by Ian Jarvie).
My first extended paper on Popper was published in Honi Soit, the weekly student newspaper at the University of Sydney, in 1971. It was the first of three papers in a series ”Towards a Liberal Education”. In that 1971 version I wrote “If the facts do not corroborate the theory we know we have missed the truth, so we must think again. We may even be pleased when our theory is refuted because it gives us the chance to build another”.
Most of the time we cringe when we re-visit out juvenile efforts but in this case I am gratified to find that apart from that particular error the paper can stand with very minor improvements. This is the version on my website at present.
The offending section now reads “If the tests yield negative results (which themselves withstand counter-arguments) or if the theory has internal inconsistencies, or clashes with other well-tested theories, then we know that something is wrong somewhere (even if it can be difficult to locate the source of error). In this situation new ideas are required, or a reinterpretation of old ideas.”
The old version contained a “saving clause”.
“Falsified hypotheses do not need to be discarded, they are a part of the history of ideas, also they may have instrumental value, they may persist as a part of a larger structure”. The current version adds that ”they may even stage a revival if they are revised or reformulated.”
Actually that can be improved because a falsified theory is merely rendered problematic, and it may still be the main game in town. Newton’s theory was known to have problems long before Einstein came up with a rival theory of comparable scope.
The reason for putting up this post is to make a kind of excuse for philosophers like Dan Hausman who have not done justice to the two components of Popper’s contribution. Surrounded by other people who all make the same mistakes in interpreting Popper’s work, how could they do better?
To clarify the distinction it helps to read the introductory pages that Popper write in Realism and the Aim of Science (1983), the first of three volumes of The Postscript to the Logic of Scientific Discovery. He noted the way that Lakatos and Kuhn were widely regarded as effective critics of his views, but they had failed to make the critical distinction.
In brief, falsifiability is a logical property of a proposition that is vulnerable to refutation by a true existential statement. The propositions of concern to Popper were universal laws in the form “all swans are white”. This is falsified by the statement (if true) “here is a black swan”.
Falsification is the process of demonstrating that a proposition has been falsified. Unlike the decisive logic of the process, the real-world process of falsification can never be decisive due to the Duhem problem, the uncertainty of observations and the many more or less disreputable ways that people can protect their views.
Even though falsification cannot be decisive it is still an essential mode of criticism (with various other forms of criticism:does the theory solve the problem? is it internally consistent? is it consistent with other well-tested theories? etc).
The point of Popper’s approach is to maximise the effectiveness of testing by working out conventions and rules of the game to detect and minimise the use of disreputable avoidance strategies. And when you get to the problem of working out when probabilistic theories are refuted, this is no easy task. That was the subtext of The Logic of Scientific Investigation (1935), getting to grips with the challenge of quantum phyiscs to conventional views on testing.
Popper’s social turn.
This is a scan on Ian Jarvie’s book to show how Popper took a “social turn” along with the “conjectural turn”, long before people like Kuhn started to take an interest in the social context of science. You can get the message from the closing sections of The Poverty of Historicism where Popper very briefly discussed the role of institutional factors that impact on the growth of knowledge. See also Chapter 23 of The Open Society which launches a preemptive strike on the sociology of knowledge, with a critique of central economic planning, which he saw as a part of the same mindset.