16 July 2006

Inductivism was the school that thought science began with observations and once a sufficient number of varied samples had been made, if none of them falsified the theory, a universal law could be derived from them–– that is, from observing nature, the way nature behaved could be understood. As the name implies, this view of science stood on induction, the making of generalizations. But as we have all found in everyday life, sometimes the generalizations don' hold true. Maybe your alarm clock has gone off every morning since you bought it. From this, you could inductively conclude that your alarm clock goes off every morning and will continue to do so. But if the power goes out one night and your clock stops, it won't go off the next morning. When you finally wake up, you will learn that your law has been falsified. While you Ümay believe that your alarm will go off in the morning, you can never know that it will until it does. So the big problem Inductivism faced was not falsification–– which merely proved that a theory was wrong–– but the chance of future falsification. Inductivism was relying on the past to predict the future, when there was really no reason to believe that the future would be anything like the past. An inductive argument can never prove something conclusively, it can only show what is likely to happen.

Falsification was meant to be a better–– more accurate–– view of how science really works. For the Inductivist, anything involving a sufficient number of varied observations which don't falsify the generalizations, and which makes predictions that are either proven or disproved by the observations, is a science. But this leads to calling some really pointless data–gathering exercises "sciences," and that didn't seem right. Yet the criteria were also too narrow, because no number of observations could prove a generalization. So a new demarkation for science was sought–– new criteria for qualification as a "science," and these guys decided that if a statement was scientific, we must be able to state which observations would prove it false. If a statement is unfalsifible–– if the results it predicts are unobservable, or will be true no matter what happens, or if it resorts to ad–hoc defenses in staving off falsification–– then it isn't scientific. And this seemed like a logical enough solution. After all, once an observation came up to falsify a theory under either view, that theory was kaputz. Falsifications were death blows for any theory: they proved it wrong under both Inductivism and Falsificationism. But unlike Inductivists, who always had to worry that this might happen and spoil their pretty laws, a Falsificationist wasn't making a law. They had abandoned induction–– and supposedly, all the problems that went with it–– for the idea that one can't make laws that explain the universe, but only try to explain the universe, so lets get on with trying. It was the antithesis of Inductivism: since one observation can prove a theory false while infinitely many can't prove it true, stop trying to prove it and try to prove it false. If, after all efforts, it still hasn't been falsified–– hey, it might be true. We don't know–– and never will–– but we'll assume it is anyway and go on.

Falsificationism does this by following standard scientific procedure–– the scientific method we learn in junior high school. They notice a problem, formulate a theory, and set about testing the hypothesis through experiment and observation. If the results falsify their original hypothesis, it is rejected; if it is supported–– corroborated–– further efforts are made to falsify it. If all attempts to falsify the theory instead corroborate it, it is conditionally accepted, as a fairly accurate description or description–– provisionally accepted, not as fact or as something true, but as the best description currently available. But it must be remembered that corroboration does not equal proof; a theory may be falsified at any time. Karl Popper was the chief spokesman for falsificationism, and he maintained that it requires a critical attitude of scientists–– a willingness to subject even their pet theories to strenuous examination, and a willingness to let them go when falsified. The critical attitude is much like the examined life Socrates advocated: a questioning, a seeking for new truth, open–mindedness in listening to criticism, as willingness to be wrong, and the resilience to try again. Without this attitude a scientist would cling blindly to her theory in the face of all evidence to the contrary, no truth would be found, and no progress would be made. Popper, though, calls on scientists to be good sports.

Now, an Inductivist would look at this in wide–eyed wonder, because while it is supposed to get around the problem of induction–– the fact that we can't base the future on the past because we can't conclusively prove that it will happen again–– it is, in essence, doing just that. It seems to say that because we have never proven this doesn't work, it will keep working. However, the Falsificationist will quickly point out that while he accepts a tenet for practical reasons, like a foundation for further work, this doesn't make it true, doesn't claim it as true, and doesn't rule out change. "In fact," he might say, "we expect to do away with this, eventually–– but right now it's the best we have." See, falsificationism doesn't try to justify its conclusion; it doesn't even claim that they will continue to work. It uses induction, yes, but doesn't count on it. Sidestepping the problem of proof through induction is one advantage of falsificationism, but there are others. It also allows for the "theory–ladeness" of observation, which was a criticism of the Inductivist's actual method, not her theoretical merit. In falsification, one is looking for specific things that are relative to her theory. Inductivists, on the other hand, are required to observe all things, pertinent or not–– because they aren't supposed to know what is pertinent until after seeing it all–– and base their conclusions on an unbiased assessment of everything observed. This was shown to be quite impossible, in practicality–– every scientist studied has gone into experiments with an idea of what to look for. Falsificationism allows for the importance of theory in experimentation, and is in fact based on it(doing experiments which try to falsify, remember? Looking for things that don't jive with the theory...). Finally, Falsificationists don't work in the historical vacuum of an Inductivist. They build on what has gone before, even while admitting that what they are building on may crumble under a new falsification any time, thus bringing down their work, too. Meanwhile, the Inductivist has to start from observations, always, and each new Inductivist has to make her own observation before she can make a generalization. Falsificationism is much closer to what scientists really do.

If more than one theory is competing to explain the same phenomena, Falsificationists have criteria for choosing the better one: the degree of falsifiability–– because the easier it is to falsify a theory, the easier it will be to prove that it isn't the best one if it isn't–– and its generality. The falsifiability of a hypothesis depends both on its clarity and its precision. If a theory is vague, it may fall into the error of claiming universal confirmation, like astrology–– claiming that the results support its conclusion, no matter what those results are. If it is imprecise in its predictions, the results will be unobservable and thus unfalsifible. Generality is desirable because a more general theory will explain more things. It offers an explanation for more occurrences, and also has more chances to be falsified. For example, if I have a theory about why roses are red, but Gregor Mendle has a theory that explains why roses are red, violets are blue, and the colors of all other flowers, too, his theory would be preferred. Not only would it explain much more than mine if it was right, but many more things could falsify it. Only roses could falsify mine, but roses, bluebells, hollyhocks, belladonna, jack in the pulpit, or any other flower could falsify Mendle's. Finally, a theory will be rejected if the modifications it makes to avoid falsification are ad–hoc–– that is, if the consequences of the modifications aren't testable, or are no more testable than the original theory. Legitimate modifications are testable...


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