Cracking the code and reading the invisible writing of Popperism

Ancient texts in unreadable languages have been cracked by picking up a handful of key words so that a pattern can be found. Much the same can happen in solving a murder mystery.

Remember the puzzle books with complex line drawings, like a tree that contains 15 children or a  bird. The children or the bird are invisible in a mass of lines in the picture, until you adjust your eyes to find them, or someone points them out.

Maybe the four, five or six Popperian “turns” can provide the key to the pattern in critical rationalism, the pattern that ensures that most professional philosophers can’t find anything that they find agreeable or that they can even “see”.

That idea occurred while re-reading Stephen Thornton’s piece on Popper in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Incidentally it was revised again in February 2013 but the Critical Appraisal is still unsatisfactory, it looks like a collection of non-sequiturs, based on (1) the failure to see the distinction between the logic of falsifiability and the practical problems of falsification and (2) how Popper addressed the problem by way of “rules of the game” or the “social turn” described by Ian Jarvie. http://www.the-rathouse.com/rev_jarvie.html

See below for an update on Thornton.

Of course people who have a personal or professional commitment to the pre-Popperian approach, against the turns, may see them without finding them acceptable, but for others it may help to provide the “keys” that unlock the code of critical rationalism.

The turns are briefly described in an appendix to the Guides in the Popular Popper series and in due course I will write a few thousand words on each and produce an ebook in the order of 25 to 30,000 words devoted to them.

Thornton revisited

In fairness to Thornton, in the body of the text the distinction between logic and practice is clearly defined.

Popper has always drawn a clear distinction between the logic of falsifiability and its applied methodology. The logic of his theory is utterly simple: if a single ferrous metal is unaffected by a magnetic field it cannot be the case that all ferrous metals are affected by magnetic fields. Logically speaking, a scientific law is conclusively falsifiable although it is not conclusively verifiable. Methodologically, however, the situation is much more complex: no observation is free from the possibility of error—consequently we may question whether our experimental result was what it appeared to be.

Thus, while advocating falsifiability as the criterion of demarcation for science, Popper explicitly allows for the fact that in practice a single conflicting or counter-instance is never sufficient methodologically to falsify a theory, and that scientific theories are often retained even though much of the available evidence conflicts with them, or is anomalous with respect to them.

Now I recall that one of the problems with the previous version was a disconnect between the body of the text which was quite sound for the most part and the criticisms at the end which were not. My concern was (and remains) that practically everyone will either read the negative conclusion alone, and those who  do make the effort to read the whole lot will quite likely take away the negative conclusion. At the very least they will be confused.

A very odd situation.

 

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6 Responses to Cracking the code and reading the invisible writing of Popperism

  1. Lee Kelly says:

    We need to have a Rafe Champion Appreciate day here on the CR Blog to celebrate tireless efforts to keep critical rationalism alive, kicking, and all over the internet for anyone who is interested. Sir, I salute you!

  2. Rafe says:

    Thanks Lee, it is a labour of love, like chopping down trees for living! Some of the happiest hours of my childhood were spent felling trees, not very big ones, that was man’s work.

    I really appreciate all the people who join in on the site, it makes the labour a whole lot lighter!

  3. Michael Kennedy says:

    I agree with Lee Kelly. The Stanford Encyclopedia and Wikipedia are the standard accounts of Popper all over the world, and they need to be checked and, if necessary, corrected. A full-scale critique of Thornton is needed, but it takes time to put one together.
    Thornton kicks off with the curious statement that Popper is ‘a dedicated opponent of all forms of scepticism’ whereas Popper has clearly stated that all knowledge, including basic statements, is fallible (see Realism and the Aim of Science, 1982 Introduction). How can a fallibiist and non-justificationist fail o be a sceprtic of sorts, albeit an optimistic one?
    Thornton says that Popper is ‘a self-confessed critical ratio alist’ as if being critical is some kind obf mortal sim. And is it not the case that Popper invented the term ‘critical rationalism’?
    Another thing which strikes me as odd about Thornton’s artucle is that it fails to tell us about Poppef’s solution to the problem of induction. Induction and denarcation were Popper’s two fundamental problems, and even if Thornon disagrees with Popper he should at least discuss the proposed solution.
    And when, in his parting shot, he tells us that ‘falsificationism for all its apparent merits, fares no better in the final analysis than verifictionism‘ he seems to have lost sight of Popper’s criticism that it is impossible to verify a universal law – which means that the vefifiability criterion would classify most scientific theories as non-scientific. Falsifiability, I suggest, may be imperfect, but verifiability is useless.
    But therei s a lot more to be said about the Thornton article.

  4. Bruce Caithness says:

    Ian C. Jarvie’s entry in the Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy is superb, as one would expect from him, pity about Stanford’s entry.

    The conclusion to Jarvie’s article is:

    “If Popper is correct, not only is much in the traditional way of doing philosophy misdirected, but even the questions are wrongly put. Any attempt to map Popper’s ideas into traditionally oriented discussions risks misrepresentation. The frequent practice of reconstructing Popper’s philosophy timelessly, plucking materials from works published as far apart as fifty years, flies in the face of his emphasis on the structuring role of problems and problem-situations in all intellectual activity, particularly inquiry. To do justice to the originality and creativity of his work, scholarship needs in the first instance to respect its intellectual context of production.”

  5. Rafe says:

    The CR blog has carried some good commentary on the Stanford Popper entry and I will come back to it with a draft of material for my book on Misreading Popper. The book is fairly well advanced. It will only be 30,000 words in an ebook, much more can be written to document the errors in hundreds of books but I don’t want to go that far in one volume.

    The on-line Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a prestigious vehicle of information on philosophy with an entry on Karl Popper written by Dr. Stephen Thornton, head of the Philosophy department in Mary Immaculate College, Limerick (Ireland). He is an unlikely candidate to write about Popper because his vita indicates that his field is contemporary analytic philosophy, with particular reference to the work and influence of Wittgenstein and he had published nothing on Popper prior to this article. The piece has been revised more than once since it first appeared, most recently in February 2013.

    The opening is positive.

    “Karl Popper is generally regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of science of the 20th century. He was also a social and political philosopher of considerable stature, a self-professed critical-rationalist, a dedicated opponent of all forms of scepticism, conventionalism, and relativism in science and in human affairs generally and a committed advocate and staunch defender of the ‘Open Society’. One of the many remarkable features of Popper’s thought is the scope of his intellectual influence…”

    The previous edition went further.

    “…In the modern technological and highly-specialised world scientists are rarely aware of the work of philosophers; it is virtually unprecedented to find them queuing up, as they have done in Popper’s case, to testify to the enormously practical beneficial impact which that philosophical work has had upon their own. But notwithstanding the fact that he wrote on even the most technical matters with consummate clarity, the scope of Popper’s work is such that it is commonplace by now to find that commentators tend to deal with the epistemological, scientific and social elements of his thought as if they were quite disparate and unconnected, and thus the fundamental unity of his philosophical vision and method has to a large degree been dissipated. Here we will try to trace the threads which interconnect the various elements of his philosophy, and which give it its fundamental unity.”

    The verdict in the last sentence of the piece is not so positive.

    “On the other hand, the shift in Popper’s own basic position is taken by some critics as an indicator that falsificationism, for all its apparent merits, fares no better in the final analysis than verificationism.”

    That it is the impression that hasty readers will take away if they have not read the body of the entry which is quite good on the merits of Popper’s ideas. There is a complete disconnect between the account in the body and the collection of “problems” that are listed in the final section “Critical Evaluation”. Finally the author delegates the responsibility for the final, negative, verdict, to “some critics”. That is understandable because on the basis of the body of the text he is not a critic himself.

    Readers who skip to the end will go away knowing that Popper’s program failed. Those who read the whole piece will be completely confused by the contradiction between the body and the conclusion.

    Some mistakes in the biographical notes do not inspire confidence and they undermine the credibility of the Encyclopedia.

    We read “he was a trainee carpenter for a time“. In fact he completed his training to take a diploma in cabinet-making in 1924, before his primary school teaching diploma in 1925 . I suspect that both carpenters and cabinet makers would be upset by the conflation of their trades.

    After publishing LdF (in 1935) “Popper spent the next few years working productively on science and philosophy”. Actually in 1935 he was teaching high school science and mathematics in. He turned his attention to the social sciences and also the menace of Hitler, having read and understood the message in Hitler’s Mein. He took leave from teaching in 1936 to travel in W Europe, desperately looking for a way to escape from Austria until he found a position in New Zealand where he moved in 1937 to take up a position as the philosopher in the school of philosophy and psychology at Canterbury College, Christchurch.

    The annexation of Austria in 1938 became the catalyst which prompted Popper to refocus his writings on social and political philosophy“. The refocus started much earlier and the annexation was the trigger to get serious about converting his notes into a book “The Poverty” which was put on hold when section 10 grew and grew:)

    Later in Britain “he became increasingly an isolated figure, though his ideas continued to inspire admiration.” Not among philosophers and especially in Oxbridge or the US. [Refer to Gilles on teaching at Oxford and the noisy departure of Ayer and his students from the lecture on the Presocratics.]

    In later years Popper came under philosophical criticism for his prescriptive approach to science and his emphasis on the logic of falsification. This was superseded in the eyes of many by the socio-historical approach taken by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962)“.

    That comment fails to pick up the two separate strands in Popper’s thinking, one concerned with the logic and the technical problems of verification and induction, the other being the “social turn” to address the protocols, conventions and rules of scientific practice. He was always concerned with the historical approach, so there was nothing new in Kuhn on that point. Quine endorsed the logic of falsification and Jarvie demonstrated that Popper took a “social turn” from the beginning but did not develop that line of thought.
    Thornton, to his credit (though it is another example of inconsistency) did make the necessary distinction some of the time (though not in the Critical Appraisal at the end); for example in section 3 on the Demarcation Criterion.

    “Popper has always drawn a clear distinction between the logic of falsifiability and its applied methodology. The logic of his theory is utterly simple: if a single ferrous metal is unaffected by a magnetic field it cannot be the case that all ferrous metals are affected by magnetic fields. Logically speaking, a scientific law is conclusively falsifiable although it is not conclusively verifiable. Methodologically, however, the situation is much more complex: no observation is free from the possibility of error—consequently we may question whether our experimental result was what it appeared to be…Thus, while advocating falsifiability as the criterion of demarcation for science, Popper explicitly allows for the fact that in practice a single conflicting or counter-instance is never sufficient methodologically to falsify a theory, and that scientific theories are often retained even though much of the available evidence conflicts with them, or is anomalous with respect to them.”

    In section 4 on the Growth of Knowledge Thornton explained that for Popper, apparently defective theories remain in play unless there is a more adequate alternative.

    “The fourth and final step is the testing of a theory by the empirical application of the conclusions derived from it. If such conclusions are shown to be true, the theory is corroborated (but never verified). If the conclusion is shown to be false, then this is taken as a signal that the theory cannot be completely correct (logically the theory is falsified), and the scientist begins his quest for a better theory. He does not, however, abandon the present theory until such time as he has a better one to substitute for it.”

    [Find the rule in LSD about not dropping a hypothesis without good reason against the Standard Error that falsificationism means throwing out all theories as soon as they have been found problematic by tests.]

    In section 5 on Probability, Knowledge and Verisimilitude he wrote
    “Commentators on Popper, with few exceptions, had initially attached little importance to his theory of verisimilitude. However, after the failure of Popper’s definitions in 1974, some critics came to see it as central to his philosophy of science, and consequentially held that the whole edifice of the latter had been subverted.”

    Again to his credit he did not share that drastic opinion but nor did he explain Popper’s best rejoinder in Realism and the Aim of Science where he explained that progress can be explained by the superior performance (explanatory power, surviving tests, predictive accuracy etc) of a new theory compared with older theories. [Give a reference to further explanation] That explanation does not depend on a measure of verisimilitude or the concept of approaching a “terminus” of the final truth.

    In section 6 on Social and Political Thought Thornton helpfully picked up the parallel between the experimental method in science and piecemeal social engineering.

    “Thus in the final analysis for Popper the activity of problem-solving is as definitive of our humanity at the level of social and political organisation as it is at the level of science, and it is this key insight which unifies and integrates the broad spectrum of his thought.”

    The critique of historicism continued in section 7 on Scientific Knowledge, History, and Prediction and section 8 on Immutable Laws and Contingent Trends. It would be helpful to have, in addition to flogging the dead horse of historicism, to see some of the other important ideas that emerged, such as the very early critique of the sociology of knowledge (effectively pre-empting the “strong program that emerged decades later) in chapter 23 of The Open Society and the very important call for situational analysis and institutional studies in the final sections of The Poverty of Historicism.

    Thornton does not have a scientific background and he sensibly refrained from venturing into quantum physics, consequently Quantum Theory and the Schism in Physics, the third volume of The Postscript, is not in the bibliography.

    The final section, Critical Appraisal, is a summary of Thornton’s opinion of the three main criticisms that Popper has had to address. It is interesting that he presents these as “criticisms that Popper had had to address” without noting that Popper replied to all of them, and without pointing out that they are largely based on the failure to make the distinction between falsifiability and falsification which he correctly described himself.

    First is the claim that there is a conflict between Popper’s realism (and the correspondence theory of truth) and his position on the theory-dependence of observations critics are inclined to describe as a form of conventionalism:
    “However, and notwithstanding Popper’s claims to the contrary, this itself seems to be a refined form of conventionalism—it implies that it is almost entirely an arbitrary matter whether it is accepted that a potential falsifier is an actual one, and consequently that the falsification of a theory is itself the function of a ‘free’ and arbitrary act. It also seems very difficult to reconcile this with Popper’s view that science progressively moves closer to the truth, conceived of in terms of the correspondence theory, for this kind of conventionalism is inimical to this (classical) conception of truth.”

    Two points in that paragraph call for a reply. First the idea that the falsification of a theory is arbitrary. Popper’s use of the language of “decisions” can be read as a concession to free and arbitrary acts but it is more in the spirit of critical rationalism to do a Situational Analysis. The analysis begins with a check on the problem situation, essentially an intellectual problem situation concerning the performance of a particular theory or a comparison between rival theories (perhaps in the light of a critical experiment). The analysis will assess the “state of play” in view of the latest evidence – has the status of the theory under investigation changed in the light of (apparently) corroborating evidence or, alternatively, apparently adverse findings? That assessment, by a scientist or a research team, may indeed be arbitrary but it is more likely to be emerge from a great deal of deliberation. In addition, the assessment by that scientist or team is not the end of the matter because it feeds into the larger context of the research program or programs in that laboratory and the field at large. Very important results which have the capacity to decide the fate of a theory or a research program will almost certainly need to be repeatable and to be repeated in other laboratories, although occasionally a result is quickly accepted without repetition.

    The second point concerns Popper’s view that science progressively moves closer to the truth. Thornton could have clarified this situation by reference to Popper’s latest writing on that topic in Realism and the Aim of Science where he used the comparison of pairs of theories to argue that progress can sometimes he clearly demonstrated as we produce better theories. The process may take a very long time (from Ptolemy to Galileo) but it does not require a numerical measure and it does not need to postulate some End Point or Terminus that we are approaching.

    Moving on, the second major criticism reported in the Critical Appraisal is a challenge to the claim that there are indeed “such things as critical tests, which either falsify a theory, or give it a strong measure of corroboration.” Lakatos launched that challenge with a thought experiment based on the example of the discovery of the planet Neptune that turned a challenge to Newton’s theory into a triumph. Lakatos argued that a failure to discover a planet in that situation could be “explained away” by a sequence of ingenious ad hoc hypotheses to protect the ruling theory.

    “Popper’s distinction between the logic of falsifiability and its applied methodology does not in the end do full justice to the fact that all high-level theories grow and live despite the existence of anomalies (i.e., events/phenomena which are incompatible with the theories). The existence of such anomalies is not usually taken by the working scientist as an indication that the theory in question is false; on the contrary, he will usually, and necessarily, assume that the auxiliary hypotheses which are associated with the theory can be modified to incorporate, and explain, existing anomalies.”

    That line of argument does not undermine the logic of testing, it simply illustrates that the data required for corroboration or critical experiments can be hard to obtain in very large, very small and very complex situations.
    Scientific researchers, like business entrepreneurs, have to make strategic decisions about investing their time and their other resources. Quite likely it usually works to accept a ruling theory despite anomalies, but some very important opportunities will be missed if that strategy is pursued by all the researchers in the field. For massive support of that proposition, on the role of ignorance in promoting the growth of knowledge, see the incredibly Popperian work of Stuart Firestein. http://www.college.columbia.edu/cct/winter12/columbia_forum . Situational analysis is required to “rationalise” decisions to ignore some anomalies and to pursue others but however carefully that process is pursued, it cannot guarantee success every time, or even most of the time!

    The third alleged major criticism in the Critical Appraisal is Putnam’s argument that testing a theory by its predictions calls for more than a statement of the theory and the “existing conditions” to declare the original law to be false if the prediction fails.

    “This reply is adequate only if it is true, as Popper assumes, that singular existential statements will always do the work of bridging the gap between a universal theory and a prediction. Hilary Putnam in particular has argued that this assumption is false, in that in some cases at least the statements required to bridge this gap (which he calls ‘auxiliary hypotheses’) are general rather than particular, and consequently that when the prediction turns out to be false we have no way of knowing whether this is due to the falsity of the scientific law or the falsity of the auxiliary hypotheses.”

    But Popper did not ignore the role of auxiliary hypotheses, including of course the theories that are assumed in our observations (the theory dependence of facts). That particular objection is not original with Putnam, it is the long-familiar Duhem problem. It does not defeat the logic of testing, it just makes the process more complicated, like the experimental problems that are encountered large, small and complex systems.

    In the final paragraph it seems that for Thornton, Popper’s supreme problem was to discriminate between science and non-science. Certainly Popper regarded the demarcation problem as fundamental, but not for the purpose of producing a strict distinction between science and non-science, rather it was a point of entry to a suite of important problems in logic and methodology.
    In the body of the text it seemed that Thornton had taken on board the important distinction between the logic of falsifiability and the practical problems of testing and falsification. He wrote:

    “Popper has always drawn a clear distinction between the logic of falsifiability and its applied methodology…Thus, while advocating falsifiability as the criterion of demarcation for science, Popper explicitly allows for the fact that in practice a single conflicting or counter-instance is never sufficient methodologically to falsify a theory, and that scientific theories are often retained even though much of the available evidence conflicts with them, or is anomalous with respect to them.”

    Popper’s recognition of the impossibility of decisive falsification, and the existence of various ways to evade the implications of adverse evidence, prompted him to take the “social turn” to examine the protocols, procedures and written and unwritten rules of scientific practice. The purpose was to minimise the prevalence of evasive modifications while accepting that it will often be hard to identify “dishonest” evasions from bold (but risky) decisions to press on to explore more implications of a theory before it is cast aside before its potential is fully realized.

    Amazingly, Thornton wrote:

    “Hence his final concern is to outline conditions which indicate when such modification is genuinely scientific, and when it is merely ad hoc. This is itself clearly a major alteration in his position, and arguably represents a substantial retraction on his part”. (my italics)

    That is emphatically not a retraction, it was always there in The Logic of Scientific Discovery and Logik der Forschung before it.

    And so the final sentence reads “the shift in Popper’s own basic position is taken by some critics as an indicator that falsificationism, for all its apparent merits, fares no better in the final analysis than verificationism.”

  6. Michael Kennedy says:

    Thornton’s opening statement:

    ‘Karl Popper is generally regarded as one of the greatest philosophers of science of the 20th century.’
    can be taken in either of two ways – either as a compliment or, as I see it, as damning Popper with faint praise. Thornton could have said that Popper was the greatest philosoher of science in the 20th century, or even the greatest all round philosopher of his time. But he chose not to.

    On induction Thornton tells us that:

    ‘Popper is unusual amongst contemporary philosophers in that he accepts the validity of the Humean critique of induction … ’.

    But Hume’s critique is an indisputable piece of logic. There is absolutely no way in which the observation that that all past X’s have been Y can validly imply that all unobserved X’s are or will be Y. Thornton may thinl so, but it is he, not Popper, who is unusual among philosophers. It makes one wonder how Stanford chooses its contributors.

    .Rafe is absolutely right about Thonton’s so-called ‘Critical evaluation’ which fails to criticise the criticisms or to report Popper’s own replies. It is just one of many similar critiques which have helped to diminish Popper in academic circles. Thus the recently published 4-volume – A New History of Western Philosophy – by Anthony Kenny of Oxford devotes exactly two pages plus a single sentence to Popper. The two pages refer to the Open Society and the single sentence descibes The Logic of Scientific Discovery as the main legacy of positivism. Kenny does not even attempt to say what is in the book.

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