What is this Thing Called Science? is a sensationally successful introductory book on the philosophy of science. It first appeared in 1976, it has been translated into fifteen languages, it is a bestseller and a standard university text. This is the second revision of my review of the book, each more critical than the last because despite the virtues of the book it is the vehicle of invalid and damaging criticism of Popperism.
This is written in sorrow more than anger Alan because was the supervisor when I wrote a Masters thesis on the Duhem problem at the University of Sydney. He is a fine scholar, a jolly decent person and a wonderful supervisor, comparable to Keith Barley, the man who supervised my first postgraduate work in Soil Science and introduced me to The Open Society. I wrote a very favourable review of the third edition of What is this thing called science? but later I became concerned about the criticism of falsificationism which Alan depicted as a stage on the journey from inductivism to more sophisticated theories like Lakatos on the methodology of scientific research programs. So I revised the review with some mild criticism under the heading "What is this thing called falsificationism?". It is also a concern that there is no mention of Popper's theory of metaphysical research projects, clearly the precursor of the Latatosian methodology of programs, though due to the eccentricities of the Popperian publication program it did not appear until 1982 in the third volume of The Postscript to the Logic of Scientific Discovery, mostly written in the 1950s.
These are the additions to the second edition of the review.
"Unfortunately, by a serious error that is perpetuated by Chalmers, Popper’s contribution was labelled “falsificationism” because it was advanced in the 1930s as a rejoinder to the logical positivists who wanted to use factual verification as a criterion of meaning. The label was unfortunate because when perceived difficulties emerged with falsification (for example it could not be decisive due to the Duhem problem and the uncertainties of observation), they were used as the rationale to prematurely eliminate Popper from the main game in the 1970s."
"On the account provided by Chalmers, the problems with falsification revealed some limitations of examining theories in isolation because observations, and especially experimental results, involve numerous assumptions, including assumption about the function of the equipment. Chalmers next proceeds to examine the treatment of theories as structures by way of Kuhn’s paradigms and the ‘methodology of scientific research programmes’ proposed by Popper’s junior colleague, Lakatos. It is worthy of note that Popper developed a theory of metaphysical research programmes during the 1950s though it was not published until Quantum Theory and the Schism in Physics appeared in 1982. So far very little work has been done to exploit the potential of Popper’s work on programmes…"
"Even allowing for my concerns about the representation of Popper’s contribution, this book that can be highly recommended for anyone who wants to obtain a firmer grasp of one of the most important yet simultaneously least understood developments of all time. That is, the spectacular successes of scientific research. The writing style is clear, engaging and unpretentious. The book is packed with episodes from the history of science so that there is a great deal to be learned about science itself in addition to the other lessons that Chalmers has to convey."
The debacle of Popper scholarship
That was before I became aware of the full extent of the debacle of Popper scholarship that I found in dozens of books which depict Popper as a falsificationist. Then the author points out that naïve falsificationism does not work, all falsification is problematic and then Popper is put aside in favour of subsequent developments associated with Lakatos, Kuhn, Feyerabend, the sociology of science, Bayesian probability or revisions of logical empiricism like “abduction to the best explanation”.
That is the pattern that was established in Alan’s book, more or less following Lakatos. It must be said that in his teaching Alan said something along the lines that the Popperian approach was the best game in town, but he was probably including Lakatos as a Popperian.
To demonstrate some balance I will credit Alan with a valid criticism (p 79). “It is a mistake to regard the falsification of bold, highly falsifiable conjectures as the occasions of significant advance in science, and Popper needs to be corrected on this point.”
That is a fair point, because the best kind of advance in science occurs when someone invents a better theory, a theory that explains more, stands up to tests better etc. The identification of error is progress of a kind, especially when you appreciate the creative function of critivism, which is the identification of prolems, preferrably problems that are important and deep. Problems are the potential growing points of science, but everything depends on inventing better theories that make progress with the problems.
In the light of the things that I have written lately about the Popperian “turns” I now think that is seriously misleading to talk about Popper as a falsificationist , without mention of the other aspects of his work which need to be understood to put his ideas on testing into context. These can be described as a number of "turns": the conjectural turn, the objectivist turn, the social turn and the metaphysical turn. Hence is is a serious mistake label Popper as a "falsificationist" and then to dismiss his ideas without noticing that the routine objections to "naive falsificationism" were always covered. And so I went back to look really carefully at the Chalmiers chapter on the limitations of falsificationism.
I don’t want to complicate the story by talking about the changes in the second and third editions of the book, apart from noting that the first two editions defined falsificationism as the naïve version, “Theories can be conclusively falsified in the light of suitable evidence…Theory rejection can be decisive. This is the factor that earns falsificationists their title” (Chalmers, 1975, p 57). Popper clearly repudiated that position when he wrote “In point of fact, no conclusive disproof of a theory can ever be produced”, for various reasons, including the Duhem problem, (Popper, 1959, p 50.)
Because Popper was clearly the target of the criticism in the chapter on the limitations of falsificationism, that association of Popper with naïve falsificationism, which stood for more than two decades, has almost certainly done massive damage to the perception of Popper’s ideas in the profession and also among interested outsiders who read introductory books on philosophy. See examples appended to the review.
The misperception of Popper as a naive falsificationist is eliminated in the third edition but the criticism of Popper remains implicit when the chapter recapitulated the standards criticisms of naive falsification without explaining that Popper was never vulnerable to those attacks. Popper always (at least from the time he published in 1935) recognised the problems that arise when you move from the logic of falsifiability to the real-world practice of testing (attempted falsification). That is why he took so much care to distinguish between falsifiability (in principle) and falsification (in practice).
Attempted falsification is simply a part of the critical method, that part concerned with the best way to use evidence. The question has to be asked, who has come up with a better way of using evidence?
I appreciate that good scientists did it before Popper, but that was his alternative to the programs of logical positivism and logical empiricism.
If his criticism of the positivist/empiricist program had been taken on board in the 1930s we would have been spared a lot of unhelpful literature on induction and confirmation
There are other strings to Popper’s bow, that is, the various "turns" and these are equally important as Popper's views on testing so a full account of Popper’s contribution will have to explain them as alternatives to other doctrines out of the justificationist and sociology of knowledge stables. Of course I appreciate that it was not the purpose of this book to provide a full account of Popperism however it should provide a correct account, as far as it goes.
Back to the review.
Several generations of science students in New South Wales risked permanent spinal deformity by carrying the massive science "Messell" science texts to school. In addition to cricked backs, it seems that Harry Messell attempted to implant an equally crabbed view on the way that science works. The text advised that "Science advances in a definite pattern. First and foremost scientists must make observations. These observations must be careful and accurate; and the results of more and more observations accumulate."
The students and their posture have been emancipated from the Messell text by the educational powers that be, and Alan Chalmers, following Popper and others, has attempted to do the same for their attitudes to the role of facts in the scientific enterprise. At the same time, if students learn what Chalmers has to teach, they should be immune to the sophistry of the Creation Scientists and to the siren song of the dreaded post-modernists and deconstructionists.
Chalmers arrived in Sydney as a more or less orthodox Popperian but since then he has become more critical and he has directed some blows at the old master. One of the aims of this review is to suggest that these blows missed the mark but they have contributed to the misreading and under-appreciation of Popper's chievement. The question has to be asked, whether the label "falsificationism" is appropriate for Popper's views.
Demolition of the pre-Popperian orthodoxy
The preliminary chapters are devoted to a close scrutiny and demolition of the old orthodoxy in the pre-Popperian philosophy of science,
Chalmers notes the common belief that the authority of science depends on the way that it 'is derived from the facts.' However, as many research students discover when they turn from the bench to start writing up their results, it is very misleading to hope that accumulated observations (a la Messell) will turn into general principles or theories (or a thesis). The facts turned up by 'nature study' and collectors are virtually worthless unless they are handled by someone like Charles Darwin who tirelessly and imaginatively sought explanations for the forms and varieties of organisms that he encountered. The facts need to be located in a theoretical framework, and it is general theories which give science its explanatory and predictive power.
Still, scientific theories are supposed to be based on facts and confirmed by facts, and for a long time the official scientific method was an alleged process of induction, whereby scientific knowledge starts with the unbiased observation of the regularities which exist in the world around us and is finally warranted or verified by inductive proof. Chalmers explains with meticulous care how and why inductive verification and warranting does not work. Moreover he explains that it is not necessary to account for the growth or rationality of scientific knowledge.
One of the problems with the observational origin of theories is the abstract nature of advanced scientific theories. Electrons, wave currents and force fields are simply not accessible to observation, nor are the principles of natural selection or the laws of supply and demand. Equally embarrassing is the logical problem of induction. However many black ravens you observe, there is no way to prove that all ravens (in the universe) are black. Popper is probably the arch-enemy of induction in recent times, though it was all said by Duhem at the turn of the century and by Hume a long time before that.
Popper's contribution, sadly misread
Popper's contribution to advance the debate was a revamped version of the hypothetico-deductive method foreshadowed by Jevons, Whewell, Pierce and the French physiologist Bernard. Knowledge advances by a problem-oriented process of conjecture, followed by rigorous testing of tentative solutions. Then we select the best among the competing theories by its ability to survive the process of testing. Falsified theories need not be discarded because they may stage a revival, they may have instrumental value and they may persist as components of a larger structure. This approach is most usefully called "evolutionary epistemology" and it has been revived in modern times by Popper and others to liberate the philosophy of science from its 20th century obsession with physics. Peter Munz was a helpful commentator. Popper's theory in the large is a theory of conjectural objective knowledge and not a theory of justified belief. His views on falsification relate in a specific and narrow manner to the way that evidence can be used to contribute to the critical appraisal of theories. "Falsification" is not a full-fledged theory of epistemology or methodology, merely a critical corrective to the errors of "verificationism".
Unfortunately, by a serious error that is perpetuated by Chalmers, Popper's contribution was labelled "falsificationism" because it was advanced in the 1930s as a rejoinder to the logical positivists who wanted to use factual verification as a criterion of meaning. The label was unfortunate because when perceived difficulties emerged with falsification (for example it could not be decisive due to the Duhem problem and the uncertainties of observation), they were used as the rationale to prematurely eliminate Popper from the main game in the 1970s.
That was partly due to the raging success of Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions which captured the sociological spirit of the age with a beguiling account of the diffusion of intellectual innovations in the scientific community. It can be argued that Kuhn's paradigm theory formed a symbiotic relationship with inductivism because inductivism tends to produce "normal scientists" and Kuhn's theory legitimates normal science. Thus while paradigm theory appeared to be radical (and gained a lot of support for that reason) it is really conservative because it gives no indication of the need for rational criticism of framework assumptions and no guidance as to how such a project of critical revision might be pursued.
Structures, programs and paradigms
On the account provided by Chalmers, the problems with falsification revealed some limitations of examining theories in isolation because observations, and especially experimental results, involve numerous assumptions, including assumption about the function of the equipment. Chalmers next proceeds to examine the treatment of theories as structures by way of Kuhn's paradigms and the 'methodology of scientific research programmes' proposed by Popper's junior colleague, Lakatos. It is worthy of note that Popper developed a theory of metaphysical research programmes during the 1950s though it was not published until Quantum Theory and the Schism in Physics appeared in 1982. So far very little work has been done to exploit the potential of Popper's work on programmes but it challenges the self-mutilating ban on the serious discussion of metaphysical (untestable) ideas that has prevailed among positivists from the time of Hume. Because untestable ideas of a programmatic nature cannot be eliminated from science the main effect of the ban was to place such ideas beyond criticism and to make positivists the slaves of whatever metaphysical ideas they picked up along the way.
One of the most valuable sections of this book is the scrutiny of Kuhn and here Chalmers identifies profound ambiguity. Kuhn insists that there is evolutionary progress in science, on the other it is hard to reconcile this view with the 'gestalt switching' process that is supposed to occur as people move from one paradigm to the next. Chalmers points out that the "gestalt switching' and the notion of incommensurability of paradigms can be put aside if one makes some fairly uncontroversial assumptions about the objectivity of scientific theories. In a previous publication, Science and its Fabrication, Chalmers has argued in a similar vein against the strong proponents of the sociology of science.
Turning to Lakatos, with his notion of a 'hard core' of a research program which has to be protected from falsification by deflecting criticism to other 'non core' elements of the program, Chalmers finds that there is no satisfactory guide to the selection of theories to be protected from the rigors of criticism. The radical views of Feyerabend are carefully dissected and Chalmers concedes that there are probably no universal and timeless standards in the philosophy of science. However this is not a concession that 'anything goes' because it simply mirrors the situation in science itself.
"If we have a conception of science as an open-ended [unended?] quest to improve our knowledge, then why cannot there be room for us to improve our methods and adapt and refine our standards in the light of what we learn" (p.162). Chalmers illustrates this with a beautiful account of the arguments used by Galileo to convince his contemporaries that the telescope might legitimately be used to augment the evidence of the naked eye.
The Bayesian turn and the new experimentalism
This edition has new material treating two interesting developments that have attracted attention in recent years. One is a form of Bayesian probability theory. This starts from the recognition that the long running program of the positivists to pin objective probabilities onto theories is a dead duck (or perhaps a dead raven). This was attempted in works by Carnap and Hempel which for David Stove "represent far more progress, in an area of the first intellectual importance, than the entire history of the human race can show before" (Anything Goes, p. 168). The Bayesians use information about the subjective assessment of rival theories by the scientific community, add the most recent and relevant information that is available and then employ a formula to calculate revised probabilities for the rivals. This approach has huge attraction for people of with a numerical turn of mind but there are many complications to work out before its claims can be taken seriously.
The other is the 'new experimentalism'. In some ways it is not all that new because it was stated in a rudimentary form by Dr Cheesman in his Chemistry I lectures at the University of Tasmania in the mid 1960s. (He was notorious on the campus for his pioneering studies in human olfaction. His assistants would accost students in the vicinity of the chemistry department and offer boiled sweets in return for poking their noses over a row of test tubes to record if they could detect any smell). After walking us through the evolution of ideas on the structure of the atom, past the friendly and helpful solar system atom to the rather darker and stranger quantum atom he pointed out that all these theories may come and go but some things do not change. Mix chemical 'a' with chemical 'b' and you obtain a blue precipitate. Place various metals in the bunsen flame and you will see their characteristic colours. The dehydrated salts of this particular group turn green when water is added. And so on.
Alan Chalmers explains how the role of experimentation has been rehabilitated in a very impressive fashion by recent writers who convincingly argue that 'experimentation has a life of its own' (due to the reproducibility of certain types of results and phenomena) against those who celebrate the primacy of theory and relegate the experimental side of science to a secondary role. This has two benefits for people who have a realist view of the world (it is actually out there, it is not a figment of our imagination) and who consider that the progress in science consists of better explanatory theories. The new experimentalism can be used to support the realist view of the world (by demonstrating our capacity to manipulate it) and it also provides the kind of observational base that is required to make testing effective, contra the critics who say "if every damn thing is up for grabs, how can you have a convincing refutation any more than a convincing verification?".
Even allowing for my concerns about the representation of Popper's contribution, this book that can be highly recommended for anyone who wants to obtain a firmer grasp of one of the most important yet simultaneously least understood developments of all time. That is, the spectacular successes of scientific research. The writing style is clear, engaging and unpretentious. The book is packed with episodes from the history of science so that there is a great deal to be learned about science itself in addition to the other lessons that Chalmers has to convey.
End of Review
BE SURE TO VISIT THE BEAUTIFUL SITE OF THE WEBMISTRESS
Strange Critiques of Popper
One from the top of the academic profession, the Popper entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
The entry starts in a positive way.
"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, a committed advocate and staunch defender of the ‘Open Society’, and an implacable critic of totalitarianism in all of its forms. One of the many remarkable features of Popper’s thought is the scope of his intellectual influence. 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."
So far, so good, however the sting is in the tail, the conclusion to the final section on Criticial Evaluation.
“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 is the “take home” lesson for most readers who will probably skip to the concluding section and not bother with the lengthy text of front of it.
Those who do read the full piece will be confused by the conclusion because it is not consistent with the preceding account which for the most part is a good, straight feed on Popper's ideas both in the philosophy of science and his work in the social sciences and political philosophy. A very strange piece of work and a testimonly to the success of Lakatos and Kuhn in trashing the legacy of Popper.
One from the popular press.
James Garvey, The Twenty Greatest Philosophy Books, Continuum, London 2006
To summarise, Garvey conflated issues from logic, from history, from research practice and from practical application of theories. People who read the two pages that he wrote on induction and demarcation will get a glimmering of the alternative to positivism but that is undone by the three pages that follow on his perception of shortcomings in Popper's contribution.
Troubles with Popper’s view
1. “Are we to think of scientists as genuinely in the business of trying to falisfy and not prove their theories?”
2. “Popper’s view, anyway, seems to ignore the social dimension of science as it is practised, a fact exploited by later philosophers of science such as T S Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend”.
3. “If Popper is right and we can never know whether or not a theory is true, then, rather bizarely, science tells us nothing about the world except what is not true of it. If all we can know is that a theory is false, we end up with no positive scientific beliefs about the world”.
4. “Further, if Popper is right, in what sense can science improve life or help us to make practical choices?”
5. The Duhem problem ( the role of other theories and statements of initial conditions in testing theories).
On 1. Of course as a matter of fact scientists do all kinds of things but when Popper wrote about the logic of scientific investigation he was concerned with the best (and the most cost effective way) to use data. That is, to test your theories, like testing the rungs of a ladder before climbing up.
On 2. Jarvie pointed out that far from ignoring the social dimension of science, Popper led the way with a “social turn” that can be identified in his earliest work and especially in Chapter 23 of The Open Society and its Enemies the essenteially social nature of science.
On 3. Popper was not overly concerned with beliefs, he was concerned with the logic of testing (to eliminate error) and with promoting the imaginative and critical approach to speed the search for better theories and practices. We cannot know for certain whether a particular theory is true but we can aim to form critical preferences between rival theories and that provides the functional equivalent of "positive scientific beliefs".
On 4. See 3. Aim to form tentative critical preferences among alternative theories, policies and practices.
On 5. The Duhem problem is just the way things are. Simply pointing to it does not discredit Popper’s theories unless you can produce some other approach that does better to handle the theory-dependence of observations, etc.
One for beginners, in and out of university.
Jenny Teichman and Katherine Evans, Philosophy: A Beginner’s Guide, (second edition), Blackwell, Oxford, 1995. First edition 1991.
The book was written for a general readership and university freshers, aiming to present the major topics in self-contained chapters without using technical jargon.
p 164 “Karl Popper is perhaps the most famous philosopher of science in this century. His account of scientific reasoning may aptly be called the falsification theory”.
“Popper holds that scientists formulate ‘highly falsifiable’ theories which they then test…scientists can be said to spend much of their time trying to show that their theories are false [until all but one have been falsified]…There are some objections to Popper’s account. One is that it is not possible to test each and every theory [that people might invent]…Next, Popper cannot really explain why exactly it is that some theories are rejected as obviously false and not worth testing at all…A third problem is that the falsification theory seems to rule out from science too much that scientists themselves want to keep in…Popper’s account on the face of it implies that as soon as a scientist makes one or two observations which do not fit into current theory then the theory will be abandonned as false”.
That is a very thin account of the work of someone they describe as (perhaps) the most famous philosopher of science of this century. On the basis of that critique you would have to wonder why he achieved such fame!
p 165 Kuhn and Feberabend
”Popper wrote his magnum opus Die Logik der Forschung in 1934 and it was translated into English as The Logic of Scientific Discovery in 1958. Since then Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend decided that the best way to find out about the nature of scientific method is not to philosophize in one’s study but rather to observe and record the activities of real scientists past and present”.
p 166 “Kuhn also has some comments to make about his predecessors in the field. He claims that Hempel, Popper et al misdescribe what scientists actually do. He says that these distinguished philosophers of science have been taken in and hoodwinked by the authors of students’ textbooks…[they] have described not the real methodology of science, but fictional states of affairs existing only in the pages of textbooks given to science students. However he argues that the textbooks have to be as they are. The distortions between their covers are necessary for the training of young scientists, whose minds have to be closed off to theories that are not productive at the moment.”
Moving on to Feyerabend “His main claim is that scientists have no special methodology, hence the title of his best-known book Against Method. Science has anarchistic features, and it has no rules of procedure which are used in all cases”.
The implication is that Popper and others of his ilk should have got out and found out more about science as it is practiced (just in case this helps with the logic of scientific investigation). If the authors had got out of their studies to a bookshop or a library they would have found that Popper has studied a great deal of the history of science from the pre-Socratics to modern quantum physics. He engaged in debates extending over decades with major figures such as Schrodinger and Bohr. As a student of education he did some time in Buhler’s psychological labratory. In New Zealand he was a constantly in touch with John Eccles while Eccles was doing the experimental work that won a Nobel. He was also closely associated with a number of scientists of lesser note including a soil chemist who passed on the word about Popper to a friend in Melbourne who passed on the message to one of his students, Keith Barley, who was my thesis supervisor in my Ag Science postgrad work. And so on.
It is interesting that this is the second edition of the book. Does this mean that the authors had no colleagues, friends or students who knew enough to help them to make a better fist of Popper’s ideas?
In the section on political philosophy there is nothing at all about Popper although they report in a small biographical note that Popper wrote a major work in political philosophy. They wrote several pages on Marxism, including the Frankfurt school and so it would have been appropriate to write a para or two about Popper’s critique of left and right utopianism that underpinned the murderous dictatorships of the twentieth century.
And one, hot off the press, designed specifically for students.
Philosophy of Science: An Historical Anthology (Blackwell Philosophy Anthologies). Timothy McGrew (Editor), Marc Alspector-Kelly (Editor), Fritz Allhoff (Editor)
The view of Popper as a naive falsificationist is repeated.
One of the editors raises the Duhem-Quine consideration that a test result depends on statements of the situation and ancillary theories, not just the theory under investigation, concluding "There can, therefore, be no such decisive refutation of a theory as Popper suggests".
However in "The Logic of Scientific Discovery" Popper wrote "In point of fact, no conclusive disproof of a theory can ever be produced; for it is always possible to say that the experimental results are not reliable, or that the discrepancies which are asserted to exist between the experimental results and the theory are only apparent and that they will disappear with the advance of our understanding."
Other criticisms of Popper are offered and it would be a good exercise for students to find how many of them are valid in the light of a close examination of the original texts.
Interestingly, only 4 of the readers of this review thus far have given it a "helpful" vote.