Popper’s victory

June 18, 2012

Just been walking to work listening to Start the Week on my dPhone. Rather jolly as it featured Mark Henderson (wants more Geekdom in Government), David Nutt (kicked off advisory committee for speaking truth to power re drugs) and David Blunkett (weird mixture of refreshingly blunt and creepily political). Mark made a big point of the idea that we need not just to encourage the spread of scientific knowledge, but to cultivate the habit of scientific thinking : a certain approach to critical problem solving. Quite right too, but reminds me of the debate last week on Telescoper’s blog about whether we should be teaching Physics knowledge, Physics understanding, or Physics skills.

The related point, picked up and run with by the Marr, was that the striking thing about scientists is that they are always trying to prove themselves wrong. Popper-style bollocks. Why has this become the official philosophy of science ? Science progresses by people relentlessly chasing down ideas and facts within a safe framework. You can’t go trying to prove yourself wrong every day. That way lies madness. We change our minds either when some striking new fact accidentally emerges, or after years, as the evidence piles up and can no longer be squeezed into the theory : and then there is a BIG change. I guess you can tell that my instinct is closer to Kuhn, but even then only as a sociological description, not as a philosophical position.

I do understand the debating point; and clearly scientists are more open to change than politicians. But whats the fundamental point here ? Is it that as a point of principle we like proving ourselves wrong ? No. Its that we are committed to arriving at true knowledge. Scepticism is only one of several things in our armoury. Maybe its about timescales. The success of scientific research over four hundred years means that – at least as far as the behaviour of the physical world is concerned – moment by moment scepticism is almost pointless. But scepticism over years remains hugely important.

In case people think I am making an anti-scepticism argument, I see this as a practical issue, not a principled one. Where we do not yet have a sound underlying theory – eg human behaviour – moment by moment scepticism is very valuable. But do we really think every physicist wakes up each morning and says to herself : “Now, how can I go about proving Einstein wrong today”. Give us a break.