The New Popper Legend, updated

In the Schilpp volume Popper described the “Popper Legend”  that he was a positivist with a different take on the criterion of meaning.  In his reply to critics he listed numerous philosophers of the highest international esteem who contributed to the Legend and propagated it. Appendix II of the Popular Popper reading guides is about the mixed reception of Popper’s first book in 1935.

The legend did a great deal of damage to Popper’s standing because only very unusual students would have bothered to read the primary sources closely enough  to pick up the mistakes that they were being taught in classes and in their texts. In fact hardly any students would have read the primary source at all, let alone read it with insight, because the English translation only appeared in 1958, it was a very expensive book and it is not  an easy read.

That legend has been overlaid by another one, that Popper was effectively criticized by Kuhn and Lakatos (and some others such as Feyerabend), and Lakatos tried to retrieve whatever could be saved from the wreckage of falsificationism while others just went off in different directions (Critical Realism, Constructivism, Paradigm Theory, the New Pragmatism and so on).

According to the New Popper Legend, he was a transitional figure between the positivists/ logical empiricists and the people in the New Directions who took over the running after  the 1960s following the appearance of Kuhn and then Lakatos, Feyerabend and others.  The idea that Lakatos was the potential saviour of the Popper program has probably faded away since Lakatos himself was not around to participate in the academic politics required to keep his ideas afloat.

One of the most interesting New Directions is driven by Philip Kitcher who has also used the label The Legend to describe the program of the logical empiricists, which he thinks ran out of legs some time ago.  That created the need for something better, which he  currently sees as a revival of the pragmatism of Peirce and Dewey  to renew and revitalize American philosophy.

Lakatos was the major architect of the New Popper Legend and it sometimes seems that his aim was to effect a kind of Hegelian synthesis of  Popper and Kuhn. Gillies provided an important record of the way Lakatos developed his critique of Popper.

Lakatos developed his criticisms of Popper and his new non-Popperian account of scientific method mainly in the years 1968 and 1969, and it was during these years that the great quarrel broke out between Lakatos and Popper. It should be added that these years were Popper’s last as Professor at LSE. Popper retired in 1969 at the age of 67.

The main public forum of the quarrel was the Popper seminar, where Lakatos presented his new ideas on some occasions and Popper replied. Lakatos’ style was a harsh attack. Popper too  sometimes lost his temper, but, for the most part, his tone was more in sorrow than in anger. Characteristically Popper would claim that Lakatos had failed to understand his (Popper’s) position and had distorted it by selective quotation and failing to mention some passages. I remember Popper once saying that until recently he had thought that Lakatos was one of the people who best understood his (Popper’s) position, and that it was a great disappointment to learn that this was not the case. Of course, Popper also produced answers to some of Lakatos’ objections. For example, I remember Popper saying that according to Lakatos Newton’s theory was not falsified, but that if Mars started moving in a square instead of an ellipse, everyone would take this as having refuted Newton’s theory. As a graduate student sitting at a safe distance below the end of the long table, I thoroughly enjoyed these heated and emotional exchanges, and looked forward to attending when one occurred. In retrospect, however, I think my attitude was a bit frivolous since the quarrel between Lakatos and Popper undoubtedly had a very bad effect on the academic standing of the Poppperian approach to philosophy. This would anyway decline sharply from about 1975 on, and, although there were other reasons for this decline, the quarrels within the school certainly accelerated the decline.

The Lakatos Attack

The attack had several levels: the level that should have been most important was the attack on the logic of  “falsificationism” which Lakatos claimed was fatally flawed.  In addition there was rhetorical attack on several fronts: the creation of a naïve Popperian falsificationist who never existed; a string of long papers  with lengthy accounts of the “history” and evolution of falsificationism through various stages (building the impression that Lakatos was advancing the history with a significant contribution of his own);  extensive references to fine points of detail in the history of chemistry and physics (giving the impression that Lakatos was a polymathic and authoritative scholar, hence who are we to challenge him?); a smokescreen of impressive new terms, above all the “methodology of scientific research programs” (with associated neologisms) to supersede the “static” Popperian approach. That was done without reference to Popper’s theory of metaphysical research programs which looks for all the world like the original source of the “research program” approach, with the advantage that Popper never gave up the critical approach when he turned to study the history and evolution of research programs.

The “Bedford College” paper

“Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programs” (1970) published in the fourth volume of the proceedings of the Bedford College Conference in 1965 is a good representative of a string of papers that make much the same points.  The starting point is the failure of justificationism in the orthodox schools of epistemology (essentially Rationailsm and Empiricism), thus giving rise to the serious problem of explaining what counts as a scientific advance in the absence of the “gold standard” of Justified True Belief.

On page 93 Lakatos referred to the dispute between Popper and Kuhn on the rational reconstruction of historical episodes in science. He wrote that he was about to strengthen Kuhn’s critique of naïve falsificationism and, as a rejoinder, to  build a stronger position to rationalise scientific revolutions.

(a) Dogmatic Naïve Falsificationism. First Lakatos criticized DNF. According to the logic of dogmatic falsificationism, science grows by repeated overthrow of theories with the help of hard facts. (97, his italics).  Was Popper ever a DNF? Lakatos invented a proto-Popper, Popper subscript zero) who was or might have been a dogmatic falsificationst.

(b) Naïve Methodological Falsificationism. This is an advance on DNF, still the emphasis is that the practitioner has to specify, in advance, the experimental evidence that means “the theory has to be given up” (p. 112 my italics).

To sum up: the methodological falsificationist offers an interesting solution to the problem of combining hard-hitting criticism with fallibilism. Not only does he offer  a philosophical basis for falsification after fallibilism has pulled the rug from under the feet of the dogmatic falsificationist, but he also widens the range of such criticism very considerably…he saves the attractive code of honour of the dogmatic falsificationist: that scientific honesty consists in specifying, in advance, an experiment such that, if the result contradicts the theory, the theory has to be given up. (112)

He went on to identify some risks associated with this position: one is the role of decisions (which could lead us astray). He subjected this to parody “One has to appreciate the dare-devil attitude of out methodological falsificationist. He feels himself to be a hero who, faced with two catastrophic alternatives, dared to reflect coolly on their relative merits and choose the lesser evil” (112).

This is a play on the point that Popper made (in relation to the empirical base) that scientists have to make decisions about the number of times they repeat tests and  decisions about which of a number of hypotheses they will subject to tests (given finite time and resources).  But those decisions do not have to be final: they can resume testing a particular hypothesis and they can widen the scope of hypotheses that they test.

The point that Lakatos wanted to extract from that line of argument was simply that the shifting adherence of scientists to theories cannot be attributed to the overwhelming importance of a particular piece of evidence or a particular critical experiment. He suggested that the history of science forces us to face two alternatives.

One alternative is to abandon efforts to give a rational explanation of the success of science and the other is to come up with a sophisticated version of falsificationism which does not suffer from the deficiencies of the naïve versions that he sketched. “This is Popper’s way and the one I intend to follow” (116).

(c) Sophisticated versus naïve methodological falsificationism. Progressive and degenerating problem shifts.

Contrary to naïve falsificationism, no experiment, experimental report, observation statement or well -corroborated low-level falsifying hypothesis alone can lead to falsification. There is no falsification before the emergence of a better theory (119, his italics).

A couple of points need to  be made here, first , the idea of falsification seems to be conflated with the (decisive?) rejection of the theory. But Popper insisted (LSD p. 50) that there cannot be decisive falsification (despite the logical decisiveness of potential falsifiability).  Consequently it is more helpful to consider  theories that have (apparently) failed tests to be rendered problematic, not subject to immediate dismissal! Second, one of the rules that Popper suggested for handling problematic theories was along the lines that a hypothesis should not be cast aside unless there is another one available that has survived the tests that caused problems for the rival.

That is why it is not a valid criticism of Popper to point out that it took centuries for the new cosmology of Copernicus and others to replace Ptolemy because both had to live with anomalies for a long time.  Similarly Newtonian mechanics survived as the major research program despite well-known anomalies (what was the alternative, before Einstein?), and Einstein superseded Newton (over a period of many years) despite well-known anomalies and problems with Einstein, and so on.

Having made some invalid criticisms of Popper’s views on the logic of testing and ignoring the function of  Popper’s proposed “rules of the game”,  Lakatos then proceeded to his “extension and improvement” of the program with a demand for novel facts.

“Thus the crucial element in [Lakatosian] falsification is whether the new theory offers any novel, excess information compared with its predecessors and whether some of this excess information is corroborated.” (120).

One of the results of this focus on novelty was a long search for “novel facts” which in retrospect resembles the long “protocol sentences” diversion that occupied the Logical Positivists in Vienna for some years, with no useful outcome.

The final section of the paper elaborated the methodology of scientific research programs. Forty years on, has this been helpful for working scientists?   In economics Lakatosian adepts followed Latsis and Blaug but there is no record of progress that I can see, based on the proceedings of a major conference in the Greek islands devoted to exploring the applications of MSRP in economics (De Marchi and Blaug, 1991. Appraising Economic Theories: Studies in the Methodology of Research Programs).

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One Response to The New Popper Legend, updated

  1. Frank Lovell says:

    Well done, Rafe, and much appreciated (I will circulate/cite)!

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