Philosophy of science: Falsification.

Philosophy of science investigates the nature of science. What should we count as science or non-science? What status should we place unobservable entities postulated by scientific theories? What kind of knowledge does science give us? And so on. In this tutorial, I will summarise Karl Popper’s theory of what demarcates science from non-science: falsification.

Falsification is the standard that demarcates science from non-science. This standard was put forward by Karl Popper. Hence, sometimes philosopher’s who argue for the falsificationist’s standard are called ‘Popperians’.

Falsification is the claim that in order for something to be viewed as science, it must involve putting forward an idea, a hypothesis, that can easily be shown to be false. The more easily it can be shown to be false, the more scientific it is, the more difficult it can be shown to be false, the less scientific it is. If it is impossible to be shown to be false, it is not scientific at all. In short, the hypothesis must be falsifiable (some scientists and philosophers will also call this being ‘testable’).

In addition to this, if the hypothesis is shown to be false, a scientific approach is either to discard the hypothesis as disproven, or produce a new hypothesis that explains why the the original hypothesis was apparently falsified. However, the new hypothesis must be more falsifiable than the original hypothesis.

A. F Chalmers (2013) gives a useful example of falsification in practice. The example Chalmers gives is the hypothesis that bread nourishes, but a French villiage experiences people dying from eating bread. If we put forward a new hypothesis ‘bread nourishes except in that French villiage’ is less falsifiable than the original theory. However, if we put forward a new hypothesis ‘bread nourishes except when contaminated with a particular germ or fungai’ is more falsifiable because this can be tested through looking at the French village’s bread for something specific about it that caused the people dying. If nothing can be found, then that hypothesis too would be falsified.

This falsification follows the logical form of Modus Tollens, which was discussed in the ‘conditionals’ tutorial:

-1. If hypothesis is true (p), then our prediction will be true (q)

-2. Prediction was not true (not q)

Therefore,

-3. Hypothesis is false (not p)

The reason Popper defends this model, is because if it is really easily for the prediction to be shown false, but consistently cannot, then it gives us more confidence that the hypothesis is true. This is the falsficationist’s view of science.

If you want to read about this in more detail, I recommend the book ‘What is this thing called Science?’ by A. F Chalmers, which is available in the link below:

https://amzn.to/2JhBoRO

Published by

Andrew Tulloch

I have a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Philosophy and Sociology, with a Political Science minor. I am currently completing my honours degree in Philosophy.

4 thoughts on “Philosophy of science: Falsification.”

  1. Interesting take. However my brain is having trouble making sense of this sentence: “The more easily it can be shown to be false, the more scientific it is, the more difficult it can be shown to be false, the less scientific it is.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Jason,

      Yes that sentence could have been written more clearly, or needed some more detail. What I am saying is when putting forward a hypothesis, we need to ask a question. The question is can we construct an experiment that will prove the hypothesis wrong if it fails? If we cannot, then the hypothesis is unfalsifiable/untestable, therefore unscientific by Popper’s standard.

      Regarding what makes a hypothesis more or less falsifiable depends on how bold the predictions in the experiment are. Let’s say you put forward a hypothesis that if true, you can predict all of next week’s lotto numbers and another hypothesis that if true, you can predict only one of next week’s lotto numbers. The former is much more falsifiable than the latter, because it has a much greater chance of being proved wrong (you could much more easily fluke picking one number right using the hypothesis, than fluking all of them right). This is where many scientists will like the Popperian standard, since it gives scientists a status of being brave with their use of bold predictions.

      I should note I am actually not a Popperian regarding the demarcation of science and non-science (I find it too restrictive), but this is a rough summary of Popper’s views. The book I recommend gives a much more nuanced and detail assessment of falsificationism.

      I hope this makes more sense,

      Andrew.

      Liked by 1 person

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