Colin Simkin’s great introduction to Popper

Colin Simkin became a close and lifelong friend of Karl Popper when they met in Christchurch (NZ) in 1937. Colin was a young economist, only in his 20s at the time and we met many year later,  in Sydney in the 1980s.  We were in touch almost weekly for more than a decade.

I was just getting interested in the Austrians, not an enthusiasm that Colin shared because he abominated the idea of apriori truths and he was not entirely happy with the radical free market anarchism of Rothbard and some of the other Austrians. Still we agreed on the fundamental importance of Popper’s ideas and we were concerned that there was no good book that provided a simple introduction to the basic ideas and also their application in economics.He conceived the idea of a collection of readings from Popper’s work on the social sciences.  This would be a companion volume to the book of extracts that David Miller compiled. However after identifying the extracts, grouped in sections with an introduction to each section, he discussed the project with some other people, probably including David Miller and he decided that there would be problems with permission from the publishers. So he changed the plan and decided to write a summary of the selections which became Popper’s Views on Natural and Social Science Brill, Leiden, 1993. That is the Amazon link. The used copies at $20+ are good value but the full price at $100+ is a bit steep!

Joe Agassi gave the book a good review.

This book offers an unusual experience. Its author, Colin Simkin, is a capable philosopher though an amateur, who has retired years ago from a successful academic career as an economist, regarding ideas of Sir Karl Popper, his old friend who is even more successful as a philosopher; one cannot fail to appreciate their vigor and intent to persevere to the very end. To the unfamiliar with Popper’s ideas, to anyone else who might benefit from a straight exposition, this book is highly recommended: it has no rival except for Popper’s own intellectual autobiography, Unended Quest. For the rest I offer some marginal critical observations.
The introduction ends with a brief summary of Popper’s creed in twelve theses that make this book an instant classic, and a hint that this book is (almost) authorized. I deem it authorized, despite minor inaccuracies that would not be allowed were the book the result of a full co-authorship. 


 It is such a good book that I have not been able to resist the temptation to put some extracts on line. You can find them on this page in the Rathouse (towards the bottom).

This is the Introduction to the book.

These are twelve theses to summarise Popper’s leading ideas which Joe Agassi gave a bit tick!

(i) Science has developed from metaphysics and has become increasingly, different from it by putting theories into a logical form that allows them to be empirically tested. Yet metaphysical elements can never be completely purged from scientific theories, and some metaphysical ideas have often usefully guided scientific research.

(ii) There is neither a deductive nor an inductive path to scientific understanding of phenomena, natural or social.

(iii) The only sound way towards such an understanding is by bold conjectures about problem situations, and severe testing of these conjectures, logically and empirically.

(iv) Scientific theories are thus always provisional, liable to replacement by more informative theories which survive, for a while, rigorous tests.
(v) It is exceptional for these theories to be exact causal laws; they are rather probabilistic.

(vi) Probability is not a reflection of human ignorance but a propensity of objective situations to generate frequency distributions of events generated by those situations.

(vii) The universe is not fully deterministic but is evolving to create new situations and, in that sense, continually opens up new possibilities and so changes propensities.

(viii) Social scientists have no hope of finding historical laws of development, nor of providing any rational basis for comprehensive social planning.

(ix) They should give up attempts to emulate the physical sciences by searching for timeless causal laws.

(x) If there are social laws, these must be probabilistic, but they cannot be established by any appeal to so-called inductive probability.

(xi) Nevertheless we can reach scientific explanations of social phenomena by using models of social situations together with a very weak rationality principle which avoids the ambiguities of psychological theorising.

(xii)  Such explanations can be greatly helped by piecemeal social engineering that addresses practical social problems in a scientific way.

And this is the first section on the social sciences.

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