Saturday, July 01, 2006


If someone proposes some theory about something, could it be tested? Karl Popper argued that science proceeds by refuting false hypotheses, not by confirming true ones. Popper's work has been criticised, but what we can say about Popper's idea of falsification, I believe, is that at the very least, for a hypothesis to be worth consideration it needs to be testable by some method. There needs to be some criteria, some kind of evidence (at least in theory), that would allow us to judge the hypothesis false. The more detail it provides – the better the hypothesis. In turn this means that there is potentially more evidence that would warrant judging it false. If we can find no such evidence, then the explanation looks quite strong. Killing erroneous hypotheses is the paradox by which science proceeds. As Popper said:

Our belief in any particular natural law cannot have a safer basis than our unsuccessful critical attempts to refute it.

Falsification should be applied to any idea about how the physical world works. Any hypothesis about the physical world should be falsifiable. The definition for 'hypothesis' I give my students is:

A predictive statement that through experimental investigation could be shown to be false.

Applying falsification to the non-physical world - eg politics and other human affairs - is a little more problematic. However, it's always worth having the idea of falsification in the back of your mind when someone proposes an explanation for something.

When a claim is not falsifiable, you are dealing with an Immunised Hypothesis. Claims about the physical world that are based on immunised hypotheses are pseudo-scientific. Examples of pseudo-sciences that Popper became suspicious of are psychoanalytic beliefs such as those of Freud and political Ideologies such as Marxism. These theories can never go wrong, as they are sufficiently flexible to accommodate any type of new behaviour. No observation or test can show these theories to be false, as their proponents are able to invent "just-so" stories to account for any possible behaviour. These theories give the appearance of being able to explain everything, but in fact they explain nothing, as they can rule out nothing. Of course there are other pseudo-scientific beliefs we can easily include with the previously mentioned ones - intelligent design, astrology, fortune telling, tarot cards…

In this podcast we discuss Falsification and Immunised Hypotheses.

Here's the link to direct download: Tutorial 02 Falsification.mp3 (20 mins & 18mb) and you subscribe here:

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