Originally published August 10, 2016
hat said, the publicly visible portion of the physics community nowadays seems split between people who are openly dismissive of philosophy and those who think they got the pertinent philosophy right but their ideological opponents haven’t. At stake isn’t just the usually tiny academic pie, but public appreciation of and respect for both the humanities and the sciences, not to mention millions of dollars in research grants (for the physicists, not the philosophers). Time, therefore, to take a more serious look at the meaning of Popper’s philosophy and why it is still very much relevant to science, when properly understood.
As we have seen, Popper’s message is deceptively simple, and – when repackaged in a tweet – has in fact deceived many a smart commentator in underestimating the sophistication of the underlying philosophy. If one were to turn that philosophy into a bumper sticker slogan it would read something like: ‘If it ain’t falsifiable, it ain’t science, stop wasting your time and money.’
But good philosophy doesn’t lend itself to bumper sticker summaries, so one cannot stop there and pretend that there is nothing more to say. Popper himself changed his mind throughout his career about a number of issues related to falsification and demarcation, as any thoughtful thinker would do when exposed to criticisms and counterexamples from his colleagues. For instance, he initially rejected any role for verification in establishing scientific theories, thinking that it was far too easy to ‘verify’ a notion if one were actively looking for confirmatory evidence. Sure enough, modern psychologists have a name for this tendency, common to laypeople as well as scientists: confirmation bias.
Nonetheless, later on Popper conceded that verification – especially of very daring and novel predictions – is part of a sound scientific approach. After all, the reason Einstein became a scientific celebrity overnight after the 1919 total eclipse is precisely because astronomers had verified the predictions of his theory all over the planet and found them in satisfactory agreement with the empirical data.
The article is here.