Conjectures and Refutations by Sir Karl Popper

Conjectures and Refutations by Sir Karl Popper

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Conjectures and Refutations by Sir Karl Popper

In a broad sense science is a systematic quest for knowledge. With this working definition in mind one can see that many areas of human endeavors could qualify as science. Therefore, Popper attempts to find a point of demarcation between science and psuedo-science. "Is there a criterion for the scientific character or status of theory."(1)

The most widely accepted answer to this problem Popper says is induction and empirical method. At this point I find it necessary to define these two terms. One, the idea of induction as it is used in this context is the process of deriving general principles from particular facts or instances.(2) Two, the empirical method is basing an idea on observation or experiment or an idea guided by practical experience and not by theory.(3) The most notable contributor to modern thinking about these two concepts was John Stuart Mill. Mill formulated proofs that he believed to characterize empirical science in his System of Logic (1843).(4)

Popper believes that these two things alone cannot differentiate between science and psuedo-science. He emphasized the hypothetico-deductive character of science.(5) Whereby scientific theories are hypothesized and statements from them can be tested. If experimentation falsifies these statements then they are refuted. However, if the statements survive experimentation then and only then can they be tentatively accepted. No theory, however well tested can be conclusively established. Popper further goes on to say that every attempt to test a theory is an attempt to falsify it. Testability is Falsifiability.

At a convention of the Aristotelian Society at Oxford in 1936; Popper gave his hypothesis which was to become world famous -- "what we call scientific knowledge is hypothetical, and often not true, let alone certainly or probably true".(7) Theories are never really confirmed by experiment, they can only survive from one test to another, remaining hostage to possible disproof tomorrow.

For the first part of Poppers argument I must adamantly agree. Science is a continual process through which induction and empirical method play a major part, Nonetheless, if a theory is to be scientific it must be able to be tested. It must have this component of Falsifiability! If we do not continually test ourselves and strive for reaffirmation we risk falling in to a pit of conjecture and; I would further say that any theory that cannot be falsified by either present means or by proposed means cannot be a scientific one.

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The second part of Poppers argument concerning risk and conventionalist twists to further curtail scientific theories needs a bit of curtailing itself.

Popper states that, one, a good scientific theory is a prohibition: it forbids certain things to happen, the more it forbids the better it is. Some theories are more testable than others, more exposed to refutation, than others, they take a greater risk. Two, some genuinely testable theories, when proven false,are still held by their admirers. To justify this they introduce a ad hoc assumption thus, escaping refutability. Popper does admit that while this is possible it also works to undermine or lower the theories scientific status.(8)

As we apply these assumptions to several theories we can see Popper's argument take shape. Einstein's theory of gravitation is sighted as one theory that satisfies his criterion of Falsifiability. Even though the ability to test it did not come for some time later. However, what would Popper say to the series of events that replaced Einstein's theory of relativity. Several ad hoc assumptions were made to justify this theory. Does that make Relativity less scientific than Quantum physics? Biology and Medical Sciences seem have the most scientific of all theories. They produce theory that says you have a clogged artery. To test it they remove the clot and your ailment is healed. Theory is tested and reaffirmed and thus sound!

When we examine many theories that today seem to be pseudo-science they seem to fit into Poppers argument very easily. Astrologist present vast amounts of empirical data yet, when they finally present their "theory" they make it vague enough to escape refutability and Falsifiability. Popper's argument can also be applied to the disciplines of Humanities. For example Popper presents two well known Sociological theories of his day that seem to justify his argument, Freud and Adlers psycho-analytic theories. Both theories are backed by clinical observation yet, Popper says that they are non-testable and irrefutable. He questions the methods by which these theories were developed, sighting that their assumptions were made without true testing. I believe that there are many theories that are valid and just, yet the scientists were lax in their methods, this I propose makes the scientist more unscientific not the theory!

If we turn Poppers argument towards his own discipline we can clearly see that philosophy is for the most part clearly unscientific. Thus, by the utilization of Poppers argument we can see that Philosophy, Psychology, and many theories of Mathematics and Physics are not scientific. Further, I would contend that Sociology is a non-scientific discipline. So if science is in fact the systematic quest for knowledge then are all these other disciplines merle entertainment for the cleaver? Do these non-sciences gain no knowledge or insight what so ever? I think not! Who said that science has the monopoly on knowledge. It does seem that sciences as a whole have been very successful in gaining of knowledge, whereas philosophers have been debating some of the same questions for thousands of years, but does this make one better than another. Perhaps what we call science is the simplest of all disciplines thus the easiest to define its knowledge gained, whereas other disciplines pose more complex theories. If we put this theory of mine to the Popper's test we can see that it is clearly much to vague to be scientific. However, does this make it any less true?

I believe Popper's argument fails on completely differentiating between what is science and what is not. He has brought much insight to this area but at this time I cannot say where his argument fails specifically. Clearly we can see there is a difference between Astrology and Sociology, between Physics and Metaphysics. Popper's argument would have us lump all disciplines into two nice neat areas: Scientific and Pseudo-Scientific. Life should be so cut and dried!


1.) Kuhn, Thomas. The Copernican Revolution. London: Harvard Press, 1957

2.) Encarta Encyclopedia. 1995 ed.

3.)Encarta Encyclopedia. 1995 ed.

4.)Encarta Encyclopedia. 1995 ed.

5.)Baird. Encarta Encyclopedia. 1995 ed.

6.)Kuhn, Thomas. The Copernican Revolution. London: Harvard Press, 1957

7.)Ferris, Thomas. The World Treasury of Physics, Astrononomy, and Mathematics. Boston:
Little, Brown and Company, 1991.
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