by David Stove

Reprinted with a Foreword by Keith Windschuttle of the Macleay Press.

In the Foreword, Keith Windschuttle describes how science studies developed in the universities in recent times, especially under the influence of Kuhn's book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Just to indicate how this impacted at ground level, when I visited the Uni of NSW round about 1970 an honours student in chemistry who was keeping up with these things told me that Popper was no longer regarded as a leading figure in this field because he had been superseded by Kuhn.

Keith noted that Popper made his reputation with his 1934 book (in German) and his criticism of logical positivism. Logical positivism emanated from the Vienna Circle which was led initially by Schlick, Carnap and Neurath. Later, when the leading figures were dispersed around the world, it travelled under the name of logical empiricism and the best known flag bearers were Carnap and Hempel.

Freddy Ayer, the young lion of positivism, introduced the English-speaking world to the new doctrines with Language Truth and Logic originally printed in 1935. Some decades later Bryan Magee asked Ayer what had caused the decline and fall of logical positivism, to which Ayer replied that it was mostly just wrong. Popper identified what was "just wrong" in the early 1930s, before Ayer's first book was even in print, but he received small thanks for his assistance.

Popper addressed a different problem from that of meaning and metaphysics (which obsessed the positivists and the logical empiricists) because he was concerned with the difference between studies (which he called science), where evidence matters, and pseudo-sciences such as astrology where theories appear to be based on observations but are actually "unsinkable". His exemplar of science was Einstein's theory which might have been refuted by a particular set of observations on the eclipse of the sun. Inspired by this example Popper advanced his criterion of falsifiability (testability) along with a set of conventions or "rules of the game" of science to ensure that the truth of theories can be tested by evidence.

The "rules of the game" approach was very nicely explained in a recent book by Ian Jarvie who suggested that Popper took a "social turn" in the philosophy of science long before the sociology of science was invented. Two other notes on that theme, (1) Popper actually refuted the sociology of knowledge well in advance in Chapter 23 of The Open Society  and (2) his political philosophy is essentially an exercise in criticism and improvemet of the "rules of the game" of social and political life. That represents a common theme in both his philsophy of science and his philosophy of society.

It is worth noting that testable statements are not confined to the "hard sciences" or even to the natural sciences, and Popper's "rules of the game" can in principle be applied to investigations in any field. As for the logic of induction, Popper proposed that science could do without it, unless induction is taken to mean something completely uncontroversial, not a logical process but something like speculating beyond the evidence in hand. Popper suggested that science makes its way by means of speculations controlled by criticism, especially the criticism of experimental or observational tests.

Keith's Criticism

Keith considers that Popper's theory of conjectural knowledge is defective because it does not provide "sufficient grounds for gaining from science anything as concrete as 'knowledge' in the usual sense of the world. What this means is that Popper's thesis has great difficulty in explaining why science is superior to any alternative belief system like, say, astrology"

That is simply not true. It is very easy to explain in Popperian terms what makes a good theory better than a bad theory. Good scientific theories explain more phenomena than astrological theories, they predict more precisely, they articulate with other scientific theories and they stand up to tests. What more do you want? Unfortunately it seems that true believers want a great deal more. They want positively justified true beliefs. More on that later.

Keith went on: "A logical positivist could argue that the real difference between astrophysics and astrology is that the findings of the former are established by a large body of evidence while the latter remains largely speculative. However, because he thinks inductive evidence is powerless to substantiate a scientific theory, Popper is in no position to make this type of distinction. If he is to avoid the charge of relativism, he has to explain why some speculations are better than others, but his theory of falsification is not designed to do this".

So far as large bodies of evidence are concerned, despite the great body of evidence that apparently supported Newton's theory, Newton's theory turned out to be false. The same evidence also supported Einstein's theory and that turned out to be false as well, though an advance on Newton.


1. It has to be said that Popper's theory of falsification is only a small part of this larger scheme and it is most unhelpful to think that his position can be summed up as "falsificationism", as I have explained in a revised review of Alan Chalmers on this topic.

The "falsificationist" approach has some merits, first it tests whether an opponent in an argument is prepared to take evidence seriously - if he or she is not prepared to accept  that any kind of evidence will refute his or  her position, you have learned something about the value of spending more time in the argument.

To fully appreciate Popper's ideas it is necessary to come to grips with at least four "turns" that he introduced - the conjectural turn, the objective turn, the social or "rules of the game" turn and the metaphysical turn.

2. The positivists have not yet been able to explain how findings can be established in any sense that is stronger than a Popperian critical preference.

3. The Popperian distinction between good and bad theories is drawn by considering how effectively they solve their problem and also stand up to criticism and tests.

Moving on from Keith's Foreword to the body of David Stove's book.

Part One contains two chapters devoted to the abuse of language by Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos and Feyerabend which has allegedly enabled them to (1) neutralise the success of science and (2) sabotage logical expressions. This essay may help to explain some of the differences between the four key players that are obscured in Stove's account. And this book by Peter Munz is helpful in locating Popper's views as a species of evolutionary epistemology.

Part Two contains three chapters on the theme of how irrationalism about science began.

In addition to the Foreword by Keith there is an Afterword by James Franklin on the reception of the first edition of Stove's book in 1982.

To summarise my view of the situation.

1. Popper's theory of knowledge and its growth is not vulnerable to the charges that have been laid by Stove and others. If the topic is the nature of belief, then that is another matter (like The Philosophy of Religious Belief) and it has little relevance to Popper's views on the methods of testing objectively formulated scientific theories.

2. It is therefore not legitimate for people to claim that Popper's ideas promote irrationalism, in any reasonable use of the term.

3. Popper's ideas are more helpful to practicing scientists than are those of Stove, Kuhn, Lakatos and Feyerabend.

4. The reasons for the rise of irrationalism are partly the failure of positivism and a complex of other factors that are spelled out by Jacques Barzun in a series of books starting with Education in America, then The House of Intellect, moving on to Science the Glorious Entertainment, and finally The American University (aptly published in 1968 while a part of his own campus was on fire). For a summary of Barzun's contribution.

In so far as various philosophies of science can be blamed for the flight to social studies and other forms of irrationalism, the failure of positivism, logical empiricism and associated forms of inductivism have been far more damaging than Popper's ideas when they are understood. Positivism and logical empiricism simply never delivered on their promises and turned into exercises in technique (mathematical probability theory) and the explication of the paradoxes that emerged from confirmation theory (like Goodman's grue emeralds and Hempel's ravens).

Chapter One: Neutralising Success Words

"Much more is known now than was known fifty years ago, and much more than was known in 1580...This is an extremely well-known fact which I will refer to as (A). A philosopher, in particular, who did not know it, would be uncommonly ignorant...Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos and Feyerabend are all writers whose position inclines them to deny (A), or at least makes them more or less reluctant to admit it".

Perhaps it all depends what you mean by knowledge. Popper for one did not deny that our knowledge grew over the centuries since 1580, and indeed in the last 50 years. I am not concerned to defend Kuhn, Lakatos and Feyerabend, their admirers can speak for them.

In fact Popper not only accepted that scientific knowledge has grown, he considered that this, along with technology, is about the one aspect of human endeavour that can be said to progress, and he described the rise of science as one of the great adventures of the human spirit ( a view which he acknowledged to be somewhat extreme).

Popper was concerned with scientific theories, that is theories which have explanatory power and stand up to tests. How can David Stove claim that Popper's theory of knowledge should make him reluctant to admit that our knowledge has grown?

The reason is that from David Stove's point of view, Popper does not have a theory of knowledge at all. I will return to this in due course.

David Stove wrote (p 44)

"With failure-words as success words, it was Popper who showed the way ahead. For he laboured long to persuade scientists that no professional stigma attaches to their being refuted. Nor did he labour in vain, but rather to such effect that he succeeded in persuading some of the sadder Popperian scientists [Monod, Eccles, Medawar, Einstein] that to be refuted was actually the goal of all their endeavours. (They appear to have had rather successful careers) [which outside the upside-down world of David Stove would appear to lend credibility to Popper's ideas]. Yet Popper had only a Pisgah-view of this matter, because he never neutralised the implications of falsity in saying, not of a scientist but of a proposition, that it 'is refuted' or 'has been falsified'."

Popper was crystal clear as to what counts as success, and David Stove has radically misrepresented Popper's talk about testing if he thinks that successful testing somehow neutralises the success of science or the growth of knowledge.

How does David Stove reach the conclusion that "to be refuted was the goal of all (scientific) endeavours"?

For Popper the aim of science was the pursuit of truth.

How do we pursue truth? By conjecture and (attempted) refutation.

What is the role of empirical evidence in this venture? Testing.

When we are about to climb a ladder to a great height, why do we try our weight on the rungs before we begin to climb (or test the rung before applying our full weight as we climb?)

To see if the rungs of the ladder will bear our weight.

Is the goal of our endeavours to break the ladder? No, it is to climb the ladder safely.

If you understand the larger objective of the exercise you can understand the reasons for the constituent activities.

David Stove has simply lifted the activity of testing out of its context in the hypothetico-deductive method and lampooned Popper to inflate his reputation as a comedian.

As for eliminating the stigmata of being refuted, what on earth is the point of attaching stigmata to intellectual error? That is one of the disasters that flow from the "manifest truth" theory of knowledge which Popper subjected to criticism in his paper on the sources of knowledge. By all means seek to correct errors, but attaching stigmata?

On page 39, David Stove ridiculed the title of Popper's book The Logic of Scientific Discovery because there is nothing about discovery in it. The literal translation of the original German version was 'The logic of investigation' and that would probably be a better title.

Discovery is a success word...but that is not the way that Popper sees the history of science, far from it.  For him the history of science is a succession of problems, conjectures and refutations, Socratic or Pre-Socratic dialogues, critical discussion. It is all talk. In this context any vivid reminder of an actual scientific discovery would be as out of place as a hippopotamus in a philosophy class...Popper is perhaps the first person to see, in the glorious history of scientific discovery, nothing more productive and exhilarating than a huge WEA philosophy class, and one which, to add to its charms, might go on forever.

This is probably regarded as a witty sally at Popper's expense. However.

1. The book in question is not a science book, it is a philosophy book, and it is concerned with questions of logic that arise in the testing and appraisal of scientific theories. David Stove's own book is vulnerable to the same mindless criticism that it is not about science, it is "just talk".

2. Popper has considered views on the role of logic in the discovery or invention of theories. He considers that it does not have a role. That can be disputed and if Stove is serious in his claim that Popper neglects the logic of discovery he should address Popper's views on the matter instead of making a fool of himself by criticising Popper's book for being what it is and not another thing.

3. Popper is just as impressed by the success of science as anyone else and there is no contradiction between a history of science as a record of discovery and the history of science as a succession of problems, conjectures and refutations etc. If you understand the problems you will have a more informed view of the achievements of science. If you do not understand the problems then your history may end up as a list of Great Scientific Discoveries, the history of science equivalent of "1066 and all that".

4. As for mocking the idea that scientific discovery might go on for ever, when did DS think it was going to stop?

5. How much is left in David Stove's attempted criticism of Popper in the paragraph quoted above when the dead wood is pruned out?

David Stove then went on to lampoon Popper's theory of conjectural knowledge and the notion that theories arise as guesses rather than inductions. The debate over the nature of knowledge (conjectural objective knowledge versus justified true belief) is pivotal to the issue between Popper and Stove so this will have to be revisited at some length later on. As for guesses, DS is especially amusing in his commentary on this topic but when the issue is reduced to logic rather than rhetoric it will probably turn out DS makes as little sense here as he did on The Logic of Scientific Discovery above.

"Epistemic embedding"

This is one of the modes of sabotaging logical expressions that DS explores at length.

"The use of epistemic embedding to sabotage a logical expression is less common in Popper than in any of our other authors...Yet, characteristically, it was he who began the practice, and by the authority of his example gave it currency. His most influential act of sabotage occurs in a part of The Logic of Scientific Discovery which is seldom read, or at any rate remembered, by any but adepts....Popper himself later said in print that what he had written at this place was 'not to my own full satisfaction'. To readers in whom the critical faculty is not entirely extinct, the episode has afforded a certain amount of hilarity". (p 64-5).

One might speculate about the mentality, even the morality, of mocking a scholar who attempts to improve his work on a difficult and fundamental problem. Maybe that is the price paid for attaching stigmata to error. Let anyone offer critical comments on the substance of the case, but let those who are free of error cast the first stone.

The problem in question concerns the testability of probability statements, for example working out if a coin is fair by a series of tosses. If the coin is fair the ration of heads to tails will be 50/50 but in short runs the ratio usually deviates from that ratio even if the coin is fair. This problem arises in particularly acute form in quantum physics and Poppers interest in this matter over several decades resulted in many publications and a major innovation in probability theory, namely the objective propensity theory, especially designed to treat single events. None of this attracts any attention from DS, despite his alleged interest in science and his impatience with mere talk.

The error of epistemic embedding appears to arise when Popper refers to the practice of scientists in handling this kind of problem by way of methodological conventions, so Popper wrote "the physicist knows well enough when to regard a probability assumption as falsified".

DS uses an example where the falsification is clear-cut and proceeds to make an elaborate case against Popper for complicating the issue and letting loose the spectre of epistemic embedding to be fully exploited by Kuhn and Lakatos.

However DS could be just as well accused of epistemic dis-embedding by neglecting the problem situations where the case is not clear-cut and difficult decisions have to be made in real time regarding the outcome of experiments so that research can proceed. This is not a concession to subjectivism or the sociology of science, merely acknowledging that the practice of science is a human activity.

Later DS moved on to another example of Popper's contribution to epistemic embedding.

"The small-arms fire, which almost never stops, is better represented by the following passage from Popper, in which he is discussing positive scientific knowledge. Now 'positive scientific knowledge' may perhaps be not obviously a logical expression, but a logical expression it must be. 'Positive scientific knowledge' must at least entail 'well-confirmed theories', for example; and here is what Popper says. 'In my view, all that can possibly be "positive" in our scientific knowledge is positive only in so far as certain theories are, at a certain moment of time, preferred to others in the light of our critical discussion, which consists of attempted refutations...' .

"Thus, where the reader expects, and non-irrationalist philosophy would require, the word 'preferable', what Popper actually says is 'preferred'; and so the logical expression 'positive scientific knowledge' is quietly sabotaged, by a context referring only to the actual theory-preference of people (presumably scientists).".

The problem here, in the eyes of DS, is gross insensitivity on the part of Popper to the difference between an evaluative word (preferable) and a descriptive word (preferred) and the choice of the latter rather than the former.

Popper once wrote that it is impossible to write clearly enough to prevent misrepresentation by people who are sufficiently determined to do so. Outsiders who have no axe to grind in this debate can decide whether it makes any difference in the context of the discussion which of the two words is used.

Popper and Stove on Probabilities

It is a commonplace observation that according to the version of the probability calculus that Carnap spent some years of his life to perfect, the probability of a universal law in the form "all ravens are black" is zero.

This does not mean that the statement is false.

The probability in that instance is calculated by a formula with the number of positive (observed) instances divided by the number of all instances in the universe (which is infinite). If you divide any finite number by infinity then the result for practical purposes is zero.

That is the kind of problem which wrecked Carnap's program and it is probably the reason why Jim Franklin wrote that it does not matter whether a numerical probability can be assigned to all theories. David Stove thought that numbers could be assigned, Keynes thought they could not. Admirers of David Stove should work out where they stand on this matter otherwise outsiders will be confused about which of the Stove doctrines are currently accepted as valid.

Stove accused Popper of contradictions and absurdities "He enjoins our utmost efforts to establish the falsity of any proposed law or theory. Yet no labour could be more pointless, if he is right in telling us that the falsity of any such proposition is already assured a priori." (page 25-6). (as per the line of argument above)

Reply: Not its falsity, its low probability according to that particular formula. If there is a better formula, let us have a look at it, otherwise we might as well assume that there is no such formula and move forward.

David Stove set out to make fun of Popper by means of a lottery analogy.

"Consider the argument to the conclusion "I will win a lottery tomorrow", from: "There is a fair lottery of 1000 tickets, to be drawn tomorrow, in which I hold just one ticket or none". Here everyone would agree that the premise is no reason to believe the conclusion. Anyone who said the same thing, however, about the argument to the same conclusion from the above premise minus its last two words, would find few to agree with him. On the contrary, the difference in logical value between the two arguments is so manifest, that such a person would be thought to display an almost unheard-of degree of logical blindness or perversity. But let us change the premise again, so that it now ends with "[...] in which I hold just 999 tickets". Anyone who said that, even here, the premise is no reason to believe the conclusion, would evidently thereby announce himself as one of those hopeless doctrinaires with whom rational argument, and even 'critical discussion', is effort thrown away."

"The deductivist, however, must say that in all three of these arguments the premise is no reason to believe the conclusion. For all three are invalid, and incurably so. This is enough to show that deductivism is one of those theses which, although anyone under pressure of philosophical argument might momentarily reconcile himself to it, would not be adhered to willingly and with knowledge of its consequences, by anyone except an enfant-terriblisme or an extreme doctrinaire."

But "A contemporary philosopher can hardly rid himself...of the feeling that the possibility of my not winning the lottery is 'objective', in some sense in which the probability of my winning is not". (page 193).

In reply, Popper was not only a deductivist, whatever that means, he was also a serious student of probability (he participated in the Carl Menger and Richard Mises groups in Vienna). He had no objection whatever to talk about the probability of events, in fact he did a great deal of writing on that topic which has apparently escaped the notice of DS and his cohorts. Popper criticised the idea that probabilities can be attached to general theories, but that is another matter, a distinction that DS overlooked, resulting in another defunct line of criticism directed at Popper.

The lottery is an event, not an explanatory theory.

Popper had no problem with the probability of events, and one of his major projects was to develop a theory of probability that could handle single events, not just long runs of events like coin tosses. Hence his theory of propensities.

For Popper, the possibility of winning and losing are equally objective, though the respective probabilities will depend on the circumstances.

In a fair lottery the propensity of every ticket to be drawn as the winner is equal so if you
have 999 of 1000 tickets your probability of winning is something like .999.
If you have one ticket the probability is .001.

As to belief, if you are an incurable optimist you can believe that you will win if you only have one ticket.

That is all separate from the question "Is it true that you won the lottery" which is not a matter of probability or belief but a matter of fact but only after the lottery is drawn.

That particular line of argument turns out to be another weak rung in David Stove's ladder.

More criticism could be provided but that should suffice to indicate that David Stove has simply not engaged effectively with Popper's ideas. Since David Stove's criticisms defy logic, it is very hard to explain why he made such a strong impact on scholars such as David Papineau, Keith Windschuttle, Scott Campbell, and many others including Sokal and Brickmont.

More Trashing of Popper

Many cases can be found where Popper's ideas are seriously misrepresented. Typical examples can be found here.

Postscript. A False Claim about Popper

The masthead of the David Stove Neo-Positivist Clubhouse, a Yahoo discussion group, once carried the following extract from a book review.

"Stove's greatest contribution to philosophy was his attack on the irrationalism that infests modern philosophy of science, in particular the sort of relativist and 'social constructivist' views so current in sociology of science and postmodernist humanities departments, in which modern science is regarded as no better (or worse) than voodoo or astrology or reading chicken entrails. Much of Stove's effort in this matter was expended in attacking what he saw, quite rightly, as the source of this silliness, namely Karl Popper's view that while we can refute theories, we can never have any reason to think that a theory is true or, more to the point, that we can never have any reason to think that one theory is more likely to be true than another".

If Popper's views are identified as the source of the postmodernist silliness it should be possible to find some exponent of that silliness who attributes his or her stance to the influence of reading Popper, or who has taken on board Popper's ideas (if not directly from him) and consequently moved to adopt the irrationalist or social constructivist position.

I am not aware of any person who has taken that route. I cannot understand how a person who has understood Popper's ideas on critical rationalism and the critical method in science could possibly move in that direction. Unless of course they repudiate the logic of Popper's position, for good reasons or bad, in which case they can hardly be said to be acting under his influence.

The members of the discussion group were asked over a period of weeks, possibly months, to come up with an example, otherwise the group manager should remove the false claim from the masthead of the group. Feyerabend was the only name put forward, however he is not a valid candidate because the rejected Popper's critical rationalism, root and branch. On the face of the evidence presented (nil) the claim in invalid. Similarly David Stove's criticisms of Popper are invalid and should be retracted.

Rafe Champion, February 2003

Note added in 2011 - the discussion group disbanded some time ago and the offending para is not replicated on the David Stove site.

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