In praise of fallibility: why science needs philosophy

by Paul Braterman

Karl_Popper

Karl Popper

More recent strata lie on top of older strata, except when they lie beneath them. Radiometric dates obtained by different methods always agree, except when they differ. And the planets in their courses obey Newton's laws of gravity and motion, except when they depart from them.

As Isaac Asimov reportedly said, "The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not 'Eureka!' [I have found it], but 'That's funny …' " And there is nothing that distinguishes so clearly between the scientific and the dogmatic mindset as the response to anomalies. For the dogmatist, the anomaly is a "gotcha", proof that the theory under consideration is, quite simply, wrong. For the scientist, it is an opportunity. If an idea is generally useful, but occasionally breaks down, something unusual is going on and it's worth finding out what. The dogmatist wants to see questions closed, where the scientist wants to keep them open. This is perhaps why the creationist denial of science can often be found among those professions that seek decision and closure, such as law and theology.

The rights and wrongs of falsification

Dogmatists regularly invoke the name of Karl Popper, and the work he did in the 1930s. Popper placed heavy emphasis on falsifiability, denouncing as unscientific any doctrine that could not be falsified. Freud's theories, for example, were unscientific, because a patient's disagreement with its findings could be explained away as the result of repression. Marxism, likewise, he regarded as unscientific because when events failed to unfold as Marx had predicted, his followers could always say that the right historical conditions had not yet arisen. The theory that biological diversity is a product of Intelligent Design is also unscientific by this criterion, since its advocates can and do say1 that any apparent failure of design may merely reflect our lack of insight into the motivations of the designer.

But what about theories that almost all of us would agree to regard as scientific, such as the theory of planetary motion, or atomic theory, or the theories of geology, or of the origin of species by evolution? Here, current thinking can be and at various times has been falsified by observation. But what, precisely, was falsified?

No theory exists on its own, as the philosopher-scientist Duhem pointed out over a century ago,2 and when a theory fails an observational test there are two kinds of possible explanation. The fault may lie with the theory itself, or with the assumptions we make while testing it. More specifically, as Lakatos pointed out in 1970,3 every application of a theory involves ancillary hypotheses, which can range from the grandiose (the laws of nature are unchanging) to the trivial (the telescope was functioning correctly). When a theoretical prediction fails, we do not know if the fault is in one of these, rather than the core theory itself. Much of the time, we are not even aware of our ancillary hypotheses, which is one reason why we need philosophers of science.

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