Popper on persisting with problematic theories

Lakatos and others, notably Dan Hausman, claimed that Popper’s falsificationism would not work because it would mean throwing out a theory immediately if it failed a test. Where did they get that  idea?

Try this rejoinder

The dogmatic attitude of sticking to a theory as long as possible is of considerable significance. Without it we could never find out what is in a theory – we should give the theory up before we had a real opportunity of finding out its strength; and in consequence no theory would ever be able to play its role in bringing order into the world, of preparing us for future events, of drawing our attention to events we should otherwise never observe. 

That is on the first page of the “What is dialectic?”, a paper that Popper delivered to a seminar in New Zealand in 1937. It was published in Mind in 1940 and reprinted as chapter 15 in Conjectures and Refutations.

This is Hausman’s contribution in the Introduction to a collection of papers which he edited, titled The Philosophy of Economics, Cambridge Uni Press.

 In the 1984 edition he wrote :
“According to Popper, scientists propose bold conjectures and then seek out the hardest possible tests of them. When the conjectures fail those tests, no excuses are permitted. The theories are regarded as refuted, and new conjectures are proposed and scrutinized. (31)”

Note 31 is Conjectures and Refutations pp 49-52, though I can’t see anything there about immediately discarding refuted conjectures and turning to new ones.

It is not surprising that there is no supporting citation from Popper because he was aware that apparent refutations can be contested and he was never a naïve falsificationist, contra Lakatos and Kuhn. He appreciated that new theories need to be developed to get over early problems, one of his rules of procedure was that no theory should be dropped without good reason, such as the availability of a better theory and he even suggested a methodological excuse for a whiff of dogmatism to allow time to develop new theories. In his contribution to the collection Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge (1974) Popper wrote “I have always stressed the need for some dogmatism: the dogmatic scientist has an important role to play. If we give in to criticism too easily we will never find where the real power of our theories lies”. Bartley disputed this formulation because it is enough to signal that adverse results render a theory “problematic” and no hint of dogmatism is required to keep the theory under consideration for development on a conjectural basis (like every other theory).

The same “no excuses” passage stands unchanged in the second edition of the book (1994).

In the third edition in 2008 there is a minor change.

“These rules require that when the conjectures fail those tests, scientists do not make excuses. Instead they should regard the theories as refuted and they should then propose and scrutinise new conjectures. (20)  As many have noted, including Thomas Kuhn and Imre Lakatos, it is a good thing that scientists do not follow these rules.”

Note 20 refers to The Logic of Scientific Discovery chapter 5. The statement in Hausman’s text does not convey Popper’s nuanced position regarding putative refutations and chapter 5 “The Problem of the Empirical Base” does not address the issue of responding to refutations at all.

This is very strange. A clearly false interpretation of Popper’s ideas has remained in place for 25 years through two revised editions of the book and presumably during this time the Introduction has been read by a large number of scholars with an interest in the philosophy of science. But apparently it has not been read by a single one who knew enough about Popper to recognise the mistake.  In the latest edition note 42 of the Introduction acknowledges the assistance of three other scholars who read drafts of the Introduction and improved it. These are Wade Hands, Kevin Hoover and Margaret Schabas. “One of great (sic) privileges of having worked so long on economic methodology is being able to count such wonderful people and wonderful intellects as friends”.
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