Falsifiability | Oct 1998

FMBR Editorial: Oct, 1998

Falsifiability

Marshall Pease

The philosopher of science, Carl Popper, advanced the principle for the hard sciences that theories must be falsifiable. That is, it must be possible to specify experimental or observational data which, if found, would prove the idea false. Otherwise, the idea may be interesting and even provocative but it is not a theory. Furthermore, a falsifiable idea gains credibility as it is tested against data which might have disproved it but didn’t. This concept is one of the great principles underlying the power of the hard sciences to address ever more subtle problems of the nature of our world. It means that no theory rests on dogma. Some theories have reached a degree of acceptance that makes them almost dogma and they may be stated in terms which sound dogmatic. They are not, however. They inspire confidence, not because some authority says so, but because they have survived many tests which might have disproved them but didn’t. Further, regardless of the degree of confidence, the possibility of eventual falsification always remains, though often left unspoken and largely ignored. This principle has governed the so called hard sciences for a long time and has contributed much to the unraveling of so many of the of the physical and biological mysteries of our world.

Outside the hard sciences it is rarely if ever possible to use the principle. We call some sciences “soft” precisely because they do not and cannot depend on “hard” data — data that might falsify a theory. As a result, contradictory schools of thought can and often do persist indefinitely with no way to decide finally and unambiguously between them. This does not mean those disciplines cannot lead to useful understanding or provide effective guidance. However, judgements based on their ideas will always remain contingent on personal opinion and preference – and subject to the bias of the user.

The inability to falsify a conclusion is even more critical in human-type situations. Even in criminal law which seeks to be as rigorous as possible, the criterion is “beyond a reasonable doubt” which is not at all the same as “beyond any doubt.” An assertion of innocence by the defendant cannot ever be truly falsified no matter how persuasive the prosecutor’s evidence. And vice versa! Outside the law, in the ordinary interactions of people, we generally function on the basis of what we think is the probable truth, and sometimes only suspect it. This is inevitable – even necessary – when some decision is necessary. Then we must go with what we have. However, people seem to feel compelled to render judgement regardless of necessity – and often regardless of an obvious paucity of evidence. This practice can, and often does, lead to serious harm which could easily have been avoided.

It must be conceded that the ambiguity of human judgement is not always bad. It creates what makes life a challenge and gives spice to it. It is also a goad to learning since we have the greatest opportunity to learn – if are willing to do so – when our judgment has been proved wrong. In any case, one of the major lessons of life is never to believe in our own infallibility. Unfortunately, this is too often forgotten when deep emotions are in play or basic ethical convictions seem to be challenged. The result can be gross injustice which can do great harm. This is a trap we all fall into on occasion – hopefully without making a habit of it. Whether or under what stress we fall into the trap is our choice. That choice does much to determine the pattern of our lives.

Marshall Pease