Karl Popper's Nontraditional Views on Science: Is Falsification Correct?
Falsification, also called refutability, is the logical possibility that an assertion, hypothesis, or theory can be contradicted by an observation made or by the outcome of a physical experiment. Made popular by philosopher of science, Karl Popper, falsification provided a method in which scientists start with a current scientific theory and use the usual methods of deductive reasoning to derive specific conclusions, some of which are "predictions" (Kenyon 1). This prediction could then become falsifiable if some observation or experiment had the ability to produce a result that would consistently reproduce a result in conflict with that earlier prediction. For example, the notion that "all birds can fly" is falsifiable, as empirical evidence has been found to disprove this notion. In essence, such a scientific standpoint appears not only valid but logical at first glance. However, in viewing the rocky history of falsification and its use, along with debates within the scientific community as to its validity in all situations, it appears that within the realm of natural science, more traditional views prove favorable in most cases.
Falsification in Use
All scientists, and many laymen, understand that science is essentially a process. While much of what we hold as truth has been so for hundreds of years, with each passing day, the capacity for those "truths" to be expanded upon or altogether refuted not only exists, but is highly probable. Take for example the "truth" of the phrase "Pluto is a planet." For years, such a statement was not only true in the minds of scientists, but in the minds of humanity as a whole. However, today, upon continued research and questioning of such truths, this sentence no longer holds up. Today, Pluto is no longer associated as being a planet, but is considered a "dwarf planet," which is possibly the most notable example of disproven science in recent years.
This notion of disproving existing science or standards is essentially what falsification draws from. Its goal is not solely to disprove, but to expand and correct on assumptions that may be more complex than we would stand to believe at first glance. In Popper's view, every scientific theory is "prohibitive," in the sense that it forbids, by implication, particular events or occurrences from happening (Thornton 1). Thus, Popper believed that scientific theories, no matter how highly these theories measured in terms of corroboration or acceptance, should not be held as truth, but "provisionally retained" as the best available theory until "eventually falsified and/or superseded by a better theory" (Thornton 1).
In understanding this basis for questioning and continually learning about scientific aspects of the natural world, one can understand how the notion of falsification is used in terms of questioning "known" theories or assumptions. For example, like the aforementioned example, the assertion "all swans are white" is falsifiable because it has been empirically verified that there are indeed swans in existence that are not white. However, not all statements that are falsifiable in principle are falsifiable in practice (Popper 82). For example, a statement such as: "it will be raining here in one million years" is theoretically falsifiable if one applies past events and analysis, but is not practically falsifiable because there is absolutely no way to truly know if that assertion is true or false.
As stated previously, not all statements that are falsifiable in principle are falsifiable in practice, which allows both critics and supporters of Popper's methods to have a field day in debating the validity of falsification in the realm of science and scientific theory. The idea that no scientific discovery or theory can truly be held as truth because of its existence in the past or the future, which keeps us from ever truly knowing the full extent of the goings-on at a certain point in time, allows for a slippery slope of acceptance or disbelief of any scientific standard or assumption. In essence, falsification has the ability to be used in order to keep any theory on the edge of truth rather than truth itself.
The basic notion that we can never be sure if an idea proven in a specific case, will hold up in another case is Popper's defining characteristic of science itself. However, while such a notion is perhaps the most logical and workable definition of science that has ever been proposed, it is far from perfect. Dr. Steven Dutch, Professor of Natural and Applied Sciences at the University of Wisconsin notes that many falsifications have turned out to be wrong because of erroneous assumptions. Dutch notes that Simon Newcomb, one of the most famous American astronomers at the beginning of the 20th century, "proved" that the heavier than air aircrafts were impossible, while at the same time the Wright Brothers were working on plans that would not only change the course of history, but disprove Newcomb's self-proven theories (Dutch 1).
One of the most heightened debates involving the theory of falsification has come only in recent years with traditional scientists and "Scientific Creationists" going head to head over the theory of evolution and what indeed has been "proven true" in years past. Creationists argue that is "impossible" to falsify evolution, and "that it is therefore a philosophy or theology on a par with their own beliefs rather than a scientific concept" (Dutch 1). In this instance alone, it can be seen how the theory of falsification can do much to open up the proverbial "can of worms" in any situation, and in instances involving science, such debates and public accusations and assertions do little else than draw ridicule into the scientific community.
Against Falsification in Favor of Tradition
While Popper's concept of falsification was established as a criticism of the existent positivist view of the scientific method which existed at the time of his research, the truth remains that this more traditional scientific method has long allowed for scientific discoveries to be conceived, made, and even refuted, as well as being the standard for research and discovery across the planet. In this sense alone, more traditionalist views of science and the methods in which science is proven are not only clearly spelled-out in terms of methodology, but are widely if not universally accepted as the means for proving scientific experimentation and hypothesizing as true in the long-run.
The scientific method and traditional views allow us to say for instance, that the chemical composition of a material has been determined, rather than saying that the scientific community has falsified all other compositions (Dutch 1). All in all, the traditional scientific method is more straightforward, and essentially makes more sense. Falsification has allowed many individuals, including pseudoscientists to use a theory that Popper intended to be used for real, fact-finding science, and naively push it to suit their own needs. For example, in 1930, physicist Dayton C. Miller performed the "Michelson-Morley Experiment," which was the basis of Relativity, and got different results from every other scientist doing research at the same time (Dutch 1). While scientists today would immediately fault Miller's own experimentations for the discrepancy, the theory of falsification allowed Miller to distribute his findings as fact, and his results are still cited today by certain individuals.
Author Richard Jeffery notes that between the thesis or hypothesis, scientists "should seek evidence for their hypothesis, with the antithesis being that they should seek evidence against their hypothesis" (Jeffery 103). In this sense, the scientific community is set out to undermine each other's research rather than working to improve the bigger picture.
In viewing the whole argument that stems from the use of Karl Poppers'
falsification methods, one can see that while the theory, at its core, was meant to serve the scientific community in order to better…