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[24-May-2005]
What Karl Popper's popularity tells us
Joe Kaplinsky

Paul Wight is correct to point out that Karl Popper was wrong on many counts. It would be hard to find a serious philosopher, historian or sociologist of science today who believes that falsification is useful or true, as either a description or a prescription for scientific practice. There are good accounts for non-professional philosophers - I recommend the philosopher James Robert Brown's book Who Rules in Science: An Opinionated Guide to the Wars, and particularly Susan Haack's book Defending Science - within Reason: Between Scientism and Cynicism.

Technicalities aside, the underlying problem with Popper is that he is one-sided. He shows the limits of our knowledge - how to prove ourselves wrong - but not how knowledge advances. Understanding what we do not know is, of cours, important. Two-and-a-half thousand years ago, the Delphic Oracle told the Greek philosopher Socrates that he was the wisest man alive. At first disbelieving, Socrates came to understand that he was indeed wise, because he alone understood that he really knew nothing.

That was a good insight. But even a few minutes browsing the responses to this spiked-survey should tell us that things have changed. We still need the understanding of our ignorance, to spur us on to new discoveries, but to insist that we still know nothing is absurd. It is the mistake of the creationist who, presented with a fossil that fills a gap in the record, only sees two more gaps - one at each end.

Falsification works, as a useful rule of thumb - a reminder to consider ways in which we may be wrong, and to find new ways to test our theories. But attempts to build falsification into a fully fledged philosophy of science have decisively failed. This raises the question of what Popper's popularity, among respondents to this spiked-survey, tells us.

A first observation is that it tends to confirm the point made in Paul Wight's initial response to this spiked-survey: 'The way it works is that we scientists do what we do, and we don't always know how we do it. Then afterwards, it is the philosophers of science who work out how we did it.' Or, as the American physicist Richard Feynman is said to have put it, philosophy of science is as much use to scientists as ornithology is to birds.

However, I think there is more to be said. Popper's philosophy of science was very much shaped by his politics. He was concerned to show, for example, that Marxism's claim to be scientific was false. Popper was concerned that once people believed that they had the truth, they would be prepared to institute tyranny. That was why he emphasised that we can only ever prove ourselves wrong, never correct.

Today, the Cold War is over. But the idea of using the insights of science to rationally intervene in the world is even more out of fashion than it was in Popper's day. Environmentalists object not just to social science, but also to applications like genetic engineering - or 'genetic modification', as the PR people renamed it, in an attempt to appease the anti-engineering sentiment.

The problem is that we can't be sure we know what we are doing, say the environmentalists. Plenty of people share their anxiety. That is why Popper still has a place in today's zeitgeist, and why he still needs to be challenged.

Joe Kaplinsky, UK



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