Misreading Popper is up

At last the ms has become an ebook.  Misreading Popper.

Popper made an outstanding contribution to the philosophy of science and he made a significant mark in several other fields as well, including political philosophy and the theory of rationality. Consequently the main lines of his work should be familiar to all educated people. This is clearly not the case. Ideas matter and the neglect and misunderstanding of Popper’s ideas contribute to the political, social and economic travails of our time.

The commentary on Karl Popper indicates that it is possible to spend a career in many philosophy schools without picking up a straight feed on his ideas. Misreading and misrepresentation of Popper’s work appears to be the norm in the academic literature and in introductory books on philosophy for students and the public.

Of course many of his views are strongly contested but the contest need to be conducted in relation to what he actually wrote because effective criticism has to be based on understanding of the work. It is unfortunate that this needs to be said in a community of scholars, especially since the rise of analytical philosophy was supposed to herald a new dawn of accuracy and precision in philosophical thinking.

The following are examples of very basic errors which turn up regularly in the commentary on Popper, even by scholars of established reputation.

Popper’s demarcation criterion was in competition with the verification principle to establish the boundary between sense and nonsense.

Popper did not take account of the theory-dependence of observations (the Duhem problem).

Science would have come to a halt of scientists took Popper’s ideas seriously.

Popper’s program was derailed by the failure of his formal definition of verisimilitude.

One of the purposes of this book is to challenge students to read Popper’s books to check whether the teachers and commentators are giving a fair and accurate account of his ideas.

I will not publicize to the world at large until friends have a chance to look and find residual typos and other errors which can be fixed before less friendly readers have a go it at.

Please use the comments to report anything you find, including passages that you think are not clear.



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The Minimum Requirement for an Adequate Critique of Popper

Looking through the misreadings of Popper that are collected in my forthcoming book, the following thoughts occurred about the work required for a good critique. Whether not commentators agree with Popper’s views, if they write about him  they need to read  all of his (relevant) his  books that are or were in print up to the time their manuscript was  completed. Of course academics should have read his journal articles before they appeared in collections.

That means:

  1. Taking account of his work on the logic of testing  as an alternative to the logical positivists/empiricists program of attempted verification which morphed into the quest for “critieria of cognitive meaningfulness” and vindication of inductive probabilities.

2.  Recognizing the challenge that he issued to the quest for justified beliefs by shifting from justification to critical preference and from beliefs to consideration of objective, intersubjective or public scientific knowledge. This move or “turn” from knowledge as justified true belief, to conjectural knowledge needs to acknowledged and tested for its fertility,  its problem-solving power and its capacity to help scientists and other practical people.

3. Describing the “social” or “rules of the game turn” (Jarvie, 2001), which can be seen as a parallel to the later Wittgenstein, and contrast what Popper and Wittgenstein achieved after having that insight.

Random thoughts to develop the “rules” approach.

Rules of democracy, violence, rules not orders, rules of equalitarian justice, the rules of method

Proposals in the context of the protective state in lieu of the contract or historical purpose approach to social organization.

See what this does for scientific practice, rationality, and politics.

If you don’t agree with his ideas then you need to provide criticisms that were not anticipated and answered in The Logic of Scientific Discovery – for example regarding the need for conventions in scientific practice, the problematic nature of adverse evidence, the case for persisting with problematic theories in case they can be improved or otherwise revived.

New criticisms of Popper’s ideas are welcome but recycling refuted criticisms suggests a need for more reading and is unhelpful for students.

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Popper’s view of neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory


In Unended Quest  Popper questioned the scientific status of evolutionary theory which he regarded as a metaphysical research program.

Some time later he changed his mind and agreed that aspects of evolutionary theory can be tested and hence it is truly scientific. There was something about this on Wik but I can’t find it.

Can someone point me to the Wik piece or any other source that verifies Popper’s change of mind?

UPDATE Sept 2014.

Can someone point me to the Wik piece or any other source that reports or documents Popper’s change of mind?



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Persisting with a refuted theory

Popper was prepared to allow a little dogmatism to persist with a theory that appeared to be in trouble with anomalies.

Bartley wrote that this did not need to be described in terms of dogmatism, instead we would just accept that the theory was problematic due to the adverse evidence and  we could keep working on it in case the issue could be resolved. The point is to acknowledge the problem.

Actually Popper had that based covered in his interview with Bryan Magee in Modern British Philosophy,  Secker and Warburg, 1971

Magee: What happens if we can’t find a satisfactory successor to the refuted predecessor-theory?

Popper: Then we would, of course, continue to use the old refuted theory until a better theory was found; but we should use it with the knowledge that there was something wrong with it. There would be an open problem, and we should know in advance the minimum conditions which a new theory would have to meet in order to be regarded as an interesting solution to this open problem.

page 72

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Help wanted

Can someone recall the source of this Popperism?

I suggest that much confusion is due to the tendency of attributing to Science (with a capital S) a kind of omniscience and I suggest that this theological view of science ought to be replaced by a more humanistic view, by the realization that science is the work of ordinary humans, groping their way in the dark.



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Conclusion of Misreading Popper

Frank has put me under pressure to finish my book, so I have made the concluding chapter very short so I can get done this weekend (more realistically, this week).

The  book starts with a run through Popper’s progress, the themes and the common or standard errors, then lists a few dozen prime examples. Then the Conclusion.


What can be said  about the literature in the philosophy of science and the place of Popper and the Popperians in it?  The misreading of Popper indicates that serious readers need to check the primary texts to form their own opinion of contested ideas. No interpretation can be taken on trust. Reading the primary Popper texts is no small task, given the density of The Logic of Scientific Discovery, the cryptic style of The Poverty of Historicism, the sheer bulk of The Open Society and its Enemies, the challenging technical material on probability and physics in the Postscript. My contribution is a series of guides to Popper’s major works but of course I don’t expect my interpretation of Popper to be accepted uncritically.

It remains to be seen how willing the writers will be to revise their ideas about Popper and it also remains to be seen whether their readers and students will go to the primary texts to check. Time will tell!

It looks as though Popper’s reputation has been a victim of fashion rather than effective criticism. This is a serious matter because it is not a healthy indicator of a strong academic and intellectual culture if fashion overwhelms critical thinking. Something is amiss in “the house of intellect”, as Barzun suggested in a book of that name (Barzun, 1957). For Barzun’s running commentary on education in the United States, see Champion (2013).

Moving Forward

Popper’s ideas can be revived if they resonate with other intellectual currents. His theory of conjectural knowledge gains support from Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz and Ignorance: How it Drives Science by Stuart Firestein. There is also a great potential for synergy between Popper’s themes and Philip Kitcher’s mission to revitalize  philosophy by drawing on the work of Peirce and Dewey (Kitcher, Prelude to Pragmatism: Toward a Reconstruction of Philosophy, Oxford University Press, 2012).  The synergy is not obvious, as I discovered from participating in the Peirce and Dewey email discussion groups, however I am optimistic about the prospects for the future in view of the trajectory of Kitcher’s work as he moved from the “Legend” of positivism/empiricism to pursue a research program that aligns with Popper’s at most points.  There is the potential for critical and creative dialogue.

Retrieving the Creative and Liberating Aspects of Popperism

Popper made his reputation as a critic, which is not surprising in view of his insistence on the critical approach. It might help to point out the creative function of criticism because.

Criticism and testing are not just  therapeutic or housecleaning activities because effective criticism (and tests) identify new problems. This is creative because problems can be seen as the growing points of science, or at least they create contexts where science can grow.

In the language of biology, you can think of new problems like new niches in the ecosystem. They can be colonised by competing theories  and they provide a challenge for new  theories to be invented.

Popper on Discovering(Good)  New Ideas

In the literature there are frequent references to the demarcation between the context of discovery and the context of justification (or testing) and it is generally agreed that Popper had nothing much to say about discovery. In fact he had views on the topic but the references are thinly spread in his work. One is in the Preface to Realism and the Aim of Science  “On the Non-Existence of  Scientific Method”.

“To conclude, I think there is only one way to do science: to meet a problem, to see its beauty and fall in love with it; to get married to it, and to live with it happily, till death do ye part – unless you should meet another and even more fascinating problem…(and) even if you obtain a solution, you may then discover, to your delight, the existence of a whole family of enchanting though perhaps difficult problem children”.

Another is the third lecture in his course,  on Problems.

My advice is to devote your mind to your problem—to think about it, to read about it, and to see what other people have thought about it. Read the history of your subject and see how other people have tried to solve your problem. And then study the solutions they have offered!

But I wouldn’t say that it is a method that will lead to greater success. None of these methods, in my opinion, can be regarded as more promising than any of the others. The real answer, which is hardly a method at all, is to have as many ideas as you possibly can, and to be as critical about your ideas as you possibly can.

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Popper on creativity and scientific discovery

As I reach the end of my booklet Misreading Popper the thought occurs that some kind of constructive and forward-looking conclusion is required, in addition to challenging the philosophers to read Popper more carefully.

So I want to say that  the misreading of Popper has two aspects. The most obvious is the hint that all is not well in the  house of  Philosophy. That is a serious matter and the second is equally important: people have been denied access to the creative, liberating and inspirational aspect of Popperism, the critical approach and critical  rationalism.

Criticism is not just a therapeutic or housecleaning activity to identify errors and inconsistencies. It has a creative function to  generate new problems, issues and spaces for new ideas which function as the growing points of science and other creative activities, including technology, the arts and public policy.

In the literature there are frequent references to the demarcation between the context of discovery and the context of justification (or testing) and it is generally agreed that Popper had nothing much to say about discovery. In fact he had very important views on the topic but the references are sparse. One is in the Preface to Realism and the Aim of Science  “On the Non-Existence of  Scientific Method”.

“To conclude, I think there is only one way to do science: to meet a problem, to see its beauty and fall in love with it; to get married to it, and to live with it happily, till death do ye part – unless you should meet another and even more fascinating problem…(and) even if you obtain a solution, you may then discover, to your delight, the existence of a whole family of enchanting though perhaps difficult problem children”.

Another is the third lecture in his course,  on Problems.

My advice is to devote your mind to your problem—to think about it, to read about it, and to see what other people have thought about it. Read the history of your subject and see how other people have tried to solve your problem. And then study the solutions they have offered! I think that all of this is better than black coffee or whisky.

But I wouldn’t say that it is a method that will lead to greater success. None of these methods, in my opinion, can be regarded as more promising than any of the others. The real answer, which is hardly a method at all, is to have as many ideas as you possibly can, and to be as critical about your ideas as you possibly can.

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Goodman’s grue emeralds and the “new riddle of induction”

The grue emerald problem surely ranks with the Gettier problem as a red herring of the first order, generated by the misguided quest for confirmation, like Hempel’s paradox of the ravens. The paradox of the ravens means that the existence of a non-black non-raven like a white shoe or a green lizard gets to increase the likelihood that all ravens are black.

I raise this because Rosenberg had a couple of pages on this problem immediately before his Popper paragraphs.

Consider the general hypothesis that all emeralds are green (actually I would have thought that was part of the definition of an emerald, you would advance general hypotheses to explain why the optical properties of a certain kind of stone produce a green colour).

Nelson Goodman invented the term ‘grue’ to which means “green at time t and t is before 2100 AD or it is blue at t then t is after 2100 AD“.

The implication is that after 2010 the cloudless sky will be blue or grue and emeralds will be blue as well.

Testing the  colour of emeralds we find that all the instances which are green support the theory that they are green up to 2100 and grue (blue) after that date. Rosenberg wrote:

We could restate the problem as one about falsification too. Since every attempt to falsify “All emeralds are green” has failed, it has also failed to falsify “All emeralds are grue”. Both hypotheses have withstood the same battery of scientific tests.

Everyone accepts that this is an absurd outcome but the problem is to explain why. What is wrong with grue? To an outsider it looks like a silly philosophers game.  Rosenberg wrote

“For our problem is to show why “All emeralds are grue is not a well-supported law, even though it has the same number of supporting instances as “all emeralds are green”. ”

He advises that this remains an unsolved problem in the theory of confirmation. In the years since 1946 various solutions have been offered but none has triumphed.

“But  the inquiry has resulted in a far greater understanding of the dimensions of scientific confirmation than the logical positivists or their empiricist predecessors [did he mean successors?] recognized. One thing all philosophers of science agree on is that the new riddle shows how complicated the notion of confirmation turns out to be, even in the simple case s of generalizations about things we can observe” (120)

It is very fortunate that  scientists can get along without a working theory of confirmation! Maybe they don’t even need one!!

Well here is my contribution:  “Emeralds are green” is not a  law, it is an empirical regularity based on the laws of optics and the crystal structure of emeralds. Similarly it is not a law that the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening, that is a regularity that we observe over most of the earth (but not all) due to the laws of mechanics and the structure of the solar system.

The laws of scientific interest in relation to the colour of jewels are the laws of optics. Speculation about grueness amount to a conjecture that the laws of optics (or the structure of emeralds) will change at 2100. A conjecture about something that happens after 2100 cannot be tested before 2100. So if we care about grueness, without having any scientific reason to be interested, we will just have to wait until 2100 and see what happens.

I think Bartley made the point that theories are interesting in relation to the problems that they solve. Speculation about grue emeralds was never related to any problem of scientific interest. So what was the point? What is the point of confirmation? We can live with conjectural knowledge provided it is tested well enough for engineering purposes and as long as people come up with better theories from time to time so we know we are  making progress. That looks ok to me.

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Alex Rosenberg, Philosophy of Science: a contemporary introduction, 2nd ed. 2005 reprinted in 2010

The first edition was published in 2000 in the Routledge Contemporary Introductions to Philosophy Series. Philosophy of Science: Contemporary Readings (eds Balashov and Rosenberg, 2004) is a companion anthology.

After a chapter on scientific explanation and a chapter on the structure and metaphysics of scientific theories Popper’s contribution is introduced in a chapter  on the epistemology of scientific theorizing under the sub-heading Induction as a pseudo-problem: Popper’s gambit.

Unfortunately Rosenberg did not explain Popper’s ideas as an attempt to  address some major problems in science and the positivist philosophy of science at the time by reformulating the issue of demarcation to shift attention from meaning  to testability because (a) he thought that the verification principle would never work  and (b)  he thought it was more helpful for working scientists to understand  the most effective way to use data than to worry about a  criterion for meaning.  (It seems that  Hempel conceded on (a) in the 1950s).

As to (b) the function of data,  Popper argued in favour of deductive testing instead of inductive proof or confirmation because the standard approach was not going to work any better than the verifiability criterion of meaning.

Before making some more comments on the details of Rosenberg’s critique it may be helpful to check how  many of the Popperian themes he identified. He did not engage with the theme of non-justificationism and conjectural knowledge (there is no reference to  Bartley who was helpful on that aspect of Popper’s epistemology and rationality).  He cited Objective Knowledge but did not pursue the theme of objective knowledge itself.   The error that Popper called “essentialism”, that is the extended explication of terms,  did not arise as an issue in this book. He did not pick up the social turn and  Popper’s concern with conventions or “rules of the game”. This aspect of Popperism aroused no comment and there was no citation of Jarvie (2001). There was no reference to Popper’s position on metaphysics and the theory of metaphysical research programs. Popper’s serious work along Darwinian and evolutionary lines was not considered nor the theory of language which he inherited from Buhler, and the growth area of evolutionary epistemology (Bartley and Radnitzky, 1987; Hooker and Hahlweg   ).

It is apparent from Rosenberg’s neglect of the Popperian themes  that he was not in a position to explain Popper’s contribution in its most robust form to explain why scientists in particular have found his work to be interesting and helpful. Popper is depicted as a failed contributor to the Legend, the project of the positivists and the logical empiricists, rather than an alternative program. Consequently he has fallen into several of the standard errors. It is interesting to note that he only listed three of Popper’s books in the bibliography; The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Conjectures and Refutations and Objective Knowledge.

Rosenberg commenced his critical commentary with reference to Popper’s ideas about deductive testing. He made the strange claim

“Popper held that as a matter of fact, scientists seek negative evidence against, not positive evidence for, scientific hypotheses.” (121)

However Popper was well aware of the existence of “confirmation bias”, for example in the chapter on the sociology of knowledge in The Open Society and its Enemies he wrote

“Everyone who has an inkling of the history of the natural sciences is aware of the passionate tenacity which characterizes many of its quarrels. No amount of political partiality can influence political theories more strongly than the partiality shown by some natural scientists in favour of their intellectual offspring…”. (OSE chapter 23)

Certainly Popper thought that scientists should seek negative evidence but in the case of their own ideas there was no guarantee that they will do so, hence the importance of the social nature of science so that other scientists could compensate for the bias of individuals, provided that they take a critical approach.

“A scientist may offer his theory with the full conviction that it is unassailable. But this will not impress his fellow-scientists and competitors; rather it challenges them; they know that the scientific attitude means criticizing everything, and they are little deterred even by authorities”. (OSE Vol 2, 218)

Popper did not refer to confirmation bias, be referred to “conventionalist strategies” which the defenders of Newton’s theory were using to hold Einstein’s new theory at bay.

Popper mounted logical arguments against theories of induction that attempted to find a way to support or render probably scientific hypotheses. A separate move, not based on logic, was to formulate some proposals for conventions or rules of the game to maximize the critical pressure that is applied to hypotheses, especially by empirical testing.

Taking up the point that the critical approach is a methodological proposal, Rosenberg wrote that Popper stigmatized Freud and Marx on account of the unscientific nature of their theories (122). Certainly Popper was concerned about the status of Freudian theory, although he did not write much about it. In the case of Marx, far from stigmatizing his work he wrote several hundred pages of analysis to pick out the valuable elements (the rejection of psychologism and the beginning of institutional analysis) from the parts which he considered to be dangerous such as the elements of essentialism and prophecy.

Rosenberg then turned his attention to the use of Popper’s ideas by economists, although it is very hard to find economists who have a good understanding of Popper’s ideas. The same applies to the contributors to the post-1980 growth industry of the philosophy and methodology of economics. He concluded that

“when it comes to economics, Popper’s claims seem to have been falsified as descriptions and to have been ill-advised as prescriptions. The history of Newtonian mechanics offers the same verdict on Popper’s prescriptions…Popper’s one-size-fits-all recipe, “refute the current theory and conjecture new hypotheses”, does not always provide the right answer” (123)

It is more correct to say “test the current theory, discover new problems and go to work on them with new hypotheses and imaginative criticism (and tests)”.

Popper did not provide a one-size-fits-all recipe, he advocated a critical approach with several forms of criticism – logic, tests, problem-solving capacity, consistency with other theories, consistency with the metaphysical research program – and the kind of criticism that is appropriate depends on the  theories under investigation and the aspect of the theory that is under scrutiny at the time.

Strangely, Rosenberg regarded Eddington’s eclipse observations as a confirmation of Einstein’s theory; of course Popper knew that the result was a triumph for Einstein in comparison with Newtonian mechanics but that did not mean that Einstein’s theory was proved, confirmed or verified in the final and definitive form required to justify the demands of justificationists.

Rosenberg asked:

“What can Popper say about theories that are repeatedly tested, whose predictions are borne out to more and more decimal places, which make novel striking predictions that are in agreement with (we can’t say “confirmed by”) new data?”

He can say that they are very powerful and beautiful theories and quite likely the best that we have at the present time but that is no guarantee that anomalies will not appear (if they have not done so already), rivals may appear in the way that Einstein challenged Newton and not for the first time a theory that was considered to be the end of the road will turn out to be another milestone in the progress of science. On a point of detail, what theory at the present time is considered to be confirmed in the way that Rosenberg seems to think that Einstein’s theory was confirmed (up to the time of this book, 2010)? What is the current status of Einstein?

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Peter Godfrey-Smith, 2003, Theory and Reality: an introduction to the philosophy of science

The author took his first degree in Sydney and is a Distinguished Professor in Philosophy in the Graduate Centre at the City University of New York. His   book Darwinian Populations and Natural Selection won the 2010 Lakatos award. This book is an ambitious introduction to the philosophy of science and  a platform for his own “naturalistic” program. It is based on lectures delivered at Stanford University over the last  11 years.

“It also bears the influence of innumerable comments, questions, and papers by students over that time, together with remarks made by colleagues and friends. ” (xi)

He acknowledged a dozen people in the Preface, plus two anonymous referees for the University of Chicago Press, three more people for “detailed and exceptionally helpful comments”, and four fundamental mentors.

It seems  that the misreading of Popper that occurs in this book, and errors based on apparent neglect of  most of his books, passed without attracting any critical comment through a decade of lectures and the production process.

The bibliography lists  Logik der Forschung, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Conjectures and Refutations, and Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge (eds Lakatos and Musgrave).

Missing are Objective Knowledge, The Library of Living Philosophers (ed Schilpp) volumes, Unended Quest, The Self and its Brain  and the three volumes of Postscript to the Logic of Scientific Discovery.

The book provides a chronological account of the philosophy of science in the 20th century after a brief survey of the various ways that science can be studied.  He drew a distinction between epistemologicval and metaphysical issues.

“Epistemology is the side of philosophy that is concerned with questions about knowledge, evidence and rationality.  Metaphysics…deals with more general questions about the nature of reality.” (9)

It is noteworthy that the most dominant school in the philosophy of science in the 20th century completely  banned metaphysics on the ground it is meaningless nonsense.

Another division of interests in the last century has been to look for (1) a proper form of a the philosophy of science; (2) to identify the scientific way of thinking; (3) a logical theory of science; (4) a methodology (rules and procedures) and in recent times (5) a general theory of scientific change. To which one could add (6) the study of the institutions of science.

He devoted two chapters to Logical Positivism and Logical Empiricism with special attention to ”The Mother of All Problems” – “a very important and difficult problem, the problem of understanding how observations can confirm a theory.” (39) In his pursuit of confirmation he was not deterred by Popper’s skepticism about the prospects of success or  the failure of the project up to date.

Moving on to his chapter on Popper, he noted that Popper is the only philosopher treated in the book who is regarded as a hero by many scientists, despite criticism from many philosophers over the years. He wrote “I agree with many of these criticisms and don’t see any way for Popper to escape from their force”. (57)

In his biographical introduction to Popper he mentioned his stay in New Zealand but not the two very important books that he wrote while he was there.  Godfrey-Smith described falsificationism as the centrepiece of Popper’s scheme along with the demand that scientific theories should take risks and offer the possibility of falsification.

“As I said above, Popper held that Marx’s and Freud’s theories were not scientific in this sense. No matter what happens, Popper thought, a Marxist or Freudian can fit it somehow into his theory.”

On a point of detail, that does not do justice to Popper’s take on Marx than that. He was alarmed by the true believers in Marxism who aroused his concern about unfalsifiable theories, but he took Marx seriously as a social scientists and he devoted hundreds of pages in the second volume of The Open Society and its Enemies to sort out the valuable parts of Marx from the dangerous parts which resulted in the ruin of Russia.

Another nuance that Godfrey-Smith did not pick up is the distinction between falsifiability and falsification [SE3]. This is apparent from his account of Popperian testing “If the prediction fails, the we have refuted, or falsified, the theory.” ( 59)  The deductive logic of falsifiability is decisive, given a true observation, but we do not have access to (certainly) true observation statements.

Because G-S thought that Popper was looking for decisive refutations (something that Popper always rejected) he suggested that Popper got into trouble when he addressed the problem of comparative probabilities were the raw data are scatter relations and not single points. “But in making this move, Popper  has badly damaged his original picture of science. This was a picture in which observations, once accepted, have the power to decisively refute theoretical hypotheses [SE 2].  That is a matter of deductive logic, as Popper endlessly stressed. Now Popper is saying that falsification can occur without its being backed up by a deductive logical relation between observation and theory” (67).

What has happened is that the theory has been made problematic, so there may be an anomaly that needs to be taken seriously. That is important to generate new research problems and it does not (and cannot) involve decisive refutation.

Introducing Popper

He described falsificationism as the centrepiece of Popper’s scheme although Popper himself was not happy with the label “falsificationist” and he considered that the critical approach was the central pillar of his work. The six themes provide a more satisfactory account of the interesting and important features of Popper’s work but placing  the focus on falsification is convenient  for teachers who want to start with the logical positivists and then treat Popper as an eccentric contributor to the same project (the Legend described by Kitcher). It is convenient but it is also very misleading unless the Popperian “themes” are spelled out to signal the major differences between Popper and the positivists and the logical empiricists. How many of the themes did  Godfrey-Smith identify in Popper’s work?

He disagreed with  Popper on confirmation but he did not introduce the language of justification and non-justification to explain the roots of Popper’s conjectural theory of knowledge.

He did not engage with the theme of objective knowledge which was closely linked with Poppers “biological and evolution turn” of the 1960s. [Though the evolutionary approach was clearly present from the beginning.  when he wrote “Its aim is not to save the lives of untenable systems but, on the contrary, to select the one which is by comparison the
fittest, by exposing them all to the fiercest struggle for survival.” (Popper,
1958, 42).] He compared the two stages of conjecture and refutation with Darwinian variation and selection but did not  refer to the four-stage scheme that was a dominant motif in the collection of papers in Objective Knowledge, or the work on evolutionary epistemology by Popper and others (Bartley and Radnitzky, eds, 1987).

He did not report  Popper’s revival of metaphysics in the form of metaphysical research programs. He gave Lakatos the credit for the idea of research programs. He wrote:

“Lakatos’s main contribution was the idea of  a research program… It should be obvious from the previous chapters that this was an idea waiting to be developed.” (102)

Indeed the idea was developed by Popper in the late 1940s and 19590s and it was written up in the Postscript in the 1950s. The manuscript and galleys were available to Popper’s colleagues, including Lakatos. The signal contribution from Lakatos was to decide as a matter of fiat that the metaphysical “hard core” of the program should be protected from criticism, thereby subverting the salient feature of Popper’s critical approach.

Finally he did not engage with Popper’s social/institutional ideas including the “rules of the game” and the way Popper wrote about the social nature of science.

He inverted one of Popper’s points on the importance of the social nature of science. On the function of criticism in the scientific community, Godfrey-Smith wrote “In contrast to Popper, Hull argues that there is no need for individual scientist to take a cautious and sceptical attitude towards their own work: others will do this for them” (165). Where is the contrast, when we find that Popper wrote “A scientist may offer his theory with the full conviction that it is unassailable. But this will not impress his fellow-scientists and competitors; rather it challenges them; they know that the scientific attitude means criticizing everything, and they are little deterred even by authorities”. (OSE Vol 2, 218)?

Moving on to Popper’s skepticism about induction and confirmation:

In the opinion of most philosophers Popper’s attempt to defend this radical claim was not successful, and some of his discussions of this topic are rather misleading to readers. As a result, some of the scientists who regard popper as a hero do not realize that Popper believed that it is never possible to confirm a theory, not even slightly, and no matter now many observations the theory predicts correctly. (59)

The problem for Godfrey-Smith and most philosophers is that the various programs to pin down the confirmation of theories or to attach numerical probabilities to theories have yet to deliver, but science proceeds anyway, on broadly Popperian lines. That is apparent from the testimonials of scientific stars like Einstein, Medawar, Monod and Eccles, from the practice of Watson, Crick and Feynman who were clearly practicing Popperians without citing Popper, and the effect on normal working scientist like the agronomists who attended Poppers Adult Education courses in New Zealand.

Godfrey-Smith finds it odd that an exponent of conjectural knowledge should be in search of true theories and he uses a Holy Grail analogy to lampoon the idea of conjectural knowledge. He invites us to imagine a community of  people in search of the eternally glowing “Holy Grail”. A person in this community may “carry” an unrefuted theory, like  a glowing Grail,  all his life without knowing if it is the real thing (the real Grail will lglow for ever).

He compared this with Popper’s conception of the community of scientists who are searching for truth. A theory that we have failed to falsify up till now might, in fact, be true, but even if it is,  we will never know this or have reason to increase our confidence that it is true. This is an ingenious exercise in missing the point of Popper’s ideas and also the real-world practice of scientific research.

Godfrey-Smith apparently thinks of truth like a Terminus of inquiry (the eternally glowing grail).  But in the real world all significant theories have both anomalies and rivals so there is no useful analogy with the Holy Grail.

Scientists are concerned with the growth of knowledge as theories are elaborated or superseded with the aim of inventing theories whichsolving  deeper problems and standing up to more demanding tests. You could think in terms of ever brighter Grails perhaps. In this context the correspondence theory of truth functions as a regulative principle and the truth it is not regarded as a Terminus at the end of the road. Scientists can function without the need to think that they have found the epistemological equivalent of the Holy Grail, and if they are engaged at the frontier of knowledge they will know quite well that they have not found it.

Objections to Popper on Confirmation

“In the previous section I discussed problems with Popper’s views about falsification. But let us leave those problems aside now, and assume in this section that we can use Popperian falsification as a method for decisively rejecting theories.” (67)

This is a strange assumption to make because Popper explained that that we cannot use falsification as a method for decisively rejecting theories, so why assume that we can? The author went on “If we make this assumption, is Popper’s attempt to describe rational theory choice successful? No, it is not.”

What if we do not make that false assumption and reconsider the question of rational theory choice?

“Here is a simple problem that Popper has a very difficult time with. Suppose we are trying to build a bridge…”. We use a lot of theories, presumably theories that the scientists and engineers regard as well tested “tried and true” methods. Empiricists say that this is a rational way to go, but why this this so? “Let us focus on Popper, who wants to avoid the need for a theory of confirmation. How does Popper’s philosophy treat the bridge building situation”. (67)

He poses a strange situation where Popper has to choose between a theory that has been tested (and passed) many times and a theory which has just been conjectured and has never been tested. Neither has been falsified. Which to choose? The usual thing would be to pick the well tested theory. “But what can Popper say about this choice?

Of course Popper has said that for practical purposes it is rational to use the best tested theory that is available. What is the point that the author is making? He wants to suggest that Popper would have some difficulty in explaining why a well tested (and unrefuted theory) should be selected ahead of a new theory that has not been tested but has also not been refuted. The answer is that Popper is not betting on the truth of the tried and unrefuted theory, he is betting on the same results, that is to say, on the existence of regularities in the world, and the stability of a complex structure or instrument that incorporates many theories and technologies that have been tested in practice.

Like the analogy of  the holy Grail, th bridge-building example is not relevant to scientific research because the bridge is an instrument and the theories that are used in its design could be known to be false, but good enough for the purpose (given the testing and safety factors that are built into bridges and other structures). The analogy is unhelpful because it does not make the distinction between testing theories in the interests of scientific research (the unended quest for truth) and the instrumental  task of building structures that are safe and secure for human use. [Cite Gordon on structures and safety factors]

Godfrey-Smith’s limited treatment of Popper’s ideas is underlined in the final section of book on the key issues for the philosophy of science in the near future. The first of these is the role of frameworks, paradigms and similar constructions. Here some consideration of Popper’s theory of metaphysical research programs is required but the bibliography does not list the Postscript to The Logic of Scientific Discovery, nor the works of Popperians such as Agassi and Watkins who have contributed to the study of metaphysical ideas in science. The second is the reward system in science which is a subsection of the social and institutional approach to science that Jarvie identified in Popper’s works, including The Open Society and its Enemies and The Poverty of Historicism that are not cited in this book.

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