Why has Popperian Falsificationism become the de facto standard methodology in science?

  1. Introduction

In the 1935 text, ‘the Logic of Scientific Discovery,’ the philosopher of science, Karl Popper, discussed the practice of Falsificationism, which has since become the de facto standard methodology in science.  This essay will aim to explain why this has occurred.  The discussion will be outlined in two sections.  The first will explore the term ‘Falsificationism’ in more detail, as well as situating Popperian Falsificationism amongst its contemporaries, most notably Inductivism and Logical Positivism.  The second section will answer the research question in more detail by arguing that Popperian Falsificationism has led to an exponential growth in science, through how it has compelled scientists to explore alternative ideas.  This has also led to science becoming what Popper labels as the ‘Open Society,’ where its members can openly question the structures around them without being ridiculed for doing so.  Furthermore, the essay will focus on how science is built on cumulative knowledge and the distinction between ‘Open’ and ‘Closed’ belief systems, as well as Popper’s relationship with one of his biggest rivals, Thomas Kuhn, who put forward the theory of Paradigms, as an alternative to Falsificationism.  Finally, it will explore the relationship that Popperian Falsificationism shares with Robert Merton’s theory of ‘the CUDOS Norms.’

  1.  Definition of Falsificationism as a key term

Whilst Popper and his followers did not explicitly acknowledge or recognise Inductivism or ‘the Fallacy of Inductivism,’ I argue that Falsificationism is a logical alternative to it.  Gaining knowledge through induction is the idea that a certain theory or methodology can be continuously verified through the observation of evidence that validates the theory.  This serves as a stark juxtaposition to Falsificationism, which argues that scientists should aim to find evidence that disproves or falsifies their theories, as opposed to validating them.  If a scientific theory withstands all attempts to falsify it, then it can be accepted into general law.  Stathis Psillos (2007) summarises it by arguing that regardless of a theory having considerable evidence that supports it, this does not equate to the theory being accepted as scientific fact.  (Psillos 2007: 90) Popper argues that a theory has only been falsified, if there is a reproducible effect that proves the theory wrong.  Falsificationism is only accepted if a low-level empirical hypothesis that refutes a theory is proposed and substantiated through evidence.  (Popper 1934: 66) Through how Falsificationism has encouraged scientists to criticise their own theories and ideas, this has led to science being transformed into the ‘Open Society’ where flaws and mistakes in theories and ideas are exposed to help improve them, vastly contrasting with Inductivism.

  1. Falsificationism amongst its contemporaries: the ‘Fallacy of Induction’

Karl Popper differed from the Logical Positivist view of science, which assumed that the best way of obtaining knowledge is through inductive logic and Verificationism, which is where meaning is attached to scientific statements, when evidence is produced that verifies the truth they claim to hold.  (Psillos 2007:259) Essentially, Psillos is arguing that if a scientist finds enough evidence that verifies and confirms his theory, it can be therefore be accepted as general fact.  Popper criticises this, as he does not believe that any amount of evidence can ever successfully confirm or validate a theory.  Peter Lipton (2007) discusses the ‘Humean Problem of Induction’ to demonstrate ‘the Fallacy of Induction.’  Lipton argues that the problem with induction is how there is a separation between observable and unobservable data.  If our research is solely based on observable data, this can lead to us therefore making unwarranted assumptions about unobservable data.  What has been observed cannot offer any guidance to what is unobservable.  Lipton then gives the example of how if a black raven is observed, this does not necessarily mean that the next raven will also be black: it could be blue.  He concludes by arguing that each connection between observable and unobservable data is completely arbitrary.  (Lipton 2007:76-77) Lipton’s key idea is that we can never make assumptions or generalisations about the unknown, based on the data available to us.  Each connection between the two is too tenuous and ambiguous to truly provide us with a clear sense of the truth.  Falsificationism provides a solution to this, by creating a tangible connection between the observable and unobservable.  Rather than adopting the vague, general method of searching for new evidence that validates an existing theory, as Inductivism advocates, Falsificationism is much more specific in its approach.  Compared to searching for completely new evidence that confirms their ideas, Falsificationists examine their existing theories for weaknesses and flaws, thus implying that they are able to make informed decisions of the unobservable, as they have examined their observable data in much finer detail.  This means that the connections and conclusions that Falsificationism provides are much less ambiguous, as rather than using the unobservable, as a guide to the observable, it follows the human thought process and instead navigates through the unobserved, using the observed as a guide.  Observable data is vital to interpreting and understanding unobservable data, due to how Inductivism makes assumptions about the unknown, based entirely of observable data.  Falsificationism does not encounter the same problem.  This means that tangible connections can be drawn between observable and unobservable data.  Falsificationism can provide a more valid depiction of the truth, through how it connects observable and unobservable data.  Through looking for ways that falsify their theories, Falsificationists seek to connect the unobservable with the observable, which thus encourages scientific curiousity.

3.1 Falsificationism and Logical Positivism

One theory of science that adopted Verificationism and ‘the Process of Induction’ was Logical Positivism.  Logical Positivism believed that the only way to attach meaningfulness to a scientific statement was through the ‘verifiability criterion of meaningfulness:’ a scientific statement that cannot be verified is meaningless and can therefore be discarded.  (Psillos 2007: 145) This thus contrasts with Popperian Falsificationism that instead argues that scientific statement are meaningless if they can be falsified and should thus be discarded.  Popper was a strong critic of Logical Positivism and Verificationism.  He criticises Logical Positivism for its failure to acknowledge the flaws in its theories.  He argues that those who aim to defend their theories against criticisms are adopting the very opposite of the critical attitude that is suitable for a scientist to take. Due to how the reliability of an experiment’s results can always be criticised, no conclusive disproof of a theory can be produced and any that is will disappear with time and understanding.  This means that if scientists always insist on conclusive proof or disproof in their empirical sciences, they will never be able to learn from their experiences.  (Popper 2002:28) Falsificationism is far less restrictive than Verificationism, due to how the theories that subscribe to it are more open to criticism.  This means that scientists can more effectively learn from their own experiences and mistakes.  Rather than looking for external evidence that corroborates their theories, they internally examine their own ideas for things to improve.  Hubert Cambier (2006) comments on some of the main criticisms that Popper had of the Vienna Circle, which Logical Positivism was borne out off.  Popper argued that experience is not the only thing that contributes to our knowledge, neither does knowledge proceed from it.  Rather experience is what is used to falsify or refuse a proposition.  (Cambier 2006: 152) Again, Popper’s attitude towards the empirical sciences is evident.  Rather than seeing sensory experience as the foundation of knowledge, he instead sees it as a catalyst, which compels scientists to identify and correct problems in their theories.  Popperian Falsificationism is predominantly a Rationalist theory, but it also reserves a place for Empiricism, if only a subordinate one.  (Cambier 2006:152) Falsificationism proves superior to the Logical Positivist practice of Verificationism, due to how the two correspond with Rationalism and Empiricism respectively.  Verificationism is much more empirical in how it relies on external experiences to corroborate its results, whereas Falsificationism takes more of a Rationalist approach.  Firstly, it analytically and methodically scrutinises its theories for criticisms and only then does it turn to external experience in an attempt to corroborate any criticisms.  Popper further criticised Logical Positivism for its close-minded view towards science and scientific norms.  Logical Positivism argued that the only scientific laws that do exist are the ones that have been successfully posited by others.  This means that we have to believe in these norms, as there are no alternatives.  (Popper, 1952:71) Popper’s argument once again highlights the unreceptive attitude that Verificationism and Logical Positivism held towards new ideas.  Essentially, if the current norms and ideas are acceptable, then there is no reason to find more, which thus rejects the possibility of alternative theories.  However, what is most significant is how Logical Positivism’s greatest asset-Verificationism, is also its greatest weakness.  Whilst Falsificationism by its very nature can continuously improve, Verificationism runs the danger of being refuted, if it encounters evidence that contradicts its claims.

  1. Falsificationism as an open-belief system

Popperian Falsificationism has become the de facto standard methodology in science, due to how it has influenced science’s progression into an open-belief system.  Popper believed that for a theory to be falsifiable it had to be open to criticism and therefore science itself had to exist as a society, where different ideas and theories could be explored and criticised in the hope of improving them.  This therefore means that the process of Falsificationism has led to science being built on the foundation of cumulative knowledge.  The technique of Falsificationism and being able to criticise our ideas and expose their flaws means that we can build on past failures and successes to continually improve our scientific knowledge.  Thus Falsificationism has contributed to converting science from a private activity that was only accessible and practised by the minute elite in society, during the Age of Enlightenment, to a public activity in a world where ideas and theories are open to criticism.  Prior to the Enlightenment Period, society was dominated by closed-belief systems, such as religions like Christianity, which discouraged any challenges towards its teachings.  Even sociological theories, such as Marxism and Functionalism that emerged after the Age of Enlightenment, still held ‘Monopolies of Truth’ and refused to entertain any challenges to their theories.  Falsificationism exists as a scientific practice in open societies and it is its ability to compel scientists to question themselves that creates a cumulative knowledge that has contributed to Falsificationism becoming the de facto, standard methodology in science.  Within ‘the Logic of Scientific Discovery,’ Popper discusses potential problems with epistemological or empirical based observations and logical reasoning.  Although he agrees that we gain knowledge through sensory observation, he argues that the knowledge we gain is only superficial and does nothing to establish any truth concerning the Empirical statement.  He continues by arguing that epistemology, rather than questioning what our knowledge is based on, it should instead question how we test our scientific statements by their deductive consequences and thus how we can best criticise, rather than defend them.  (Popper 1935:79-80) Popper argues that the use of empirical observations, as the basis for empirical statements has proven to be too vague and general of a foundation to begin collecting data.   Falsificationism acts as an alternative, due to how it argues that to deepen our understanding of our scientific theories, we have to identify every single weakness and correct them, rather than confirming every single strength.

4.1 Falsificationism in relation to Kuhn’s Paradigms and ‘the Open Society’

Thomas Kuhn was one of Popper’s biggest rivals and critics.  Rather than argue that Falsificationism had transformed science into an open-belief system, Kuhn instead believed that science was still closed off, due to what he identified as ‘Paradigms.’  Psillos (2007) argues that Kuhn’s paradigms are essentially frameworks of rules, beliefs, values and objectives that govern and oversee a scientist’s work.  (Psillos, 2007:174) Scientists are expected to closely adhere to the paradigms of their chosen fields or risk being stigmatised by their peers.  This is what happened to Doctor Immanuel Velikovsky who published the 1950 ‘Worlds in Collision,’ where he suggested a new theory to the origins of the earth that challenged some of the most fundamental paradigms in science.  Rather than his fellow scientists seeking to test and corroborate his theory, they dismissed it out of hand and Velikovsky’s scientific reputation was destroyed.  Those scientists who expressed a willingness to consider Velikovsky’s theory were similarly victimised.  Velikovsky’s victimisation upon his attempts to question the scientific paradigms provides a stark contrast to Popper’s belief of science being an open-belief system where Falsificationism has allowed scientific theories to be open for criticism.  George Gale (1979) identified some of Popper’s key ideas concerning the ‘Open Society.’ He argues that to be a member of it you have to always be willing to revise your ideas and to challenge any established paradigms or theories.  (Gale 1979: 199) Gale’s argument encapsulates the key theory behind Falsificationism and how scientists are always compelled to question and criticise their ideas.  Stefano Gattei (2007) comments on some of the key arguments in the debate between Popper and Kuhn.  He argues that they have different perspectives regarding the importance of scientific ‘truth.’  Whilst Kuhn believed that scientific truth played no role in regulating or appraising scientific theories, Popper argued that it played a major role in exploring the faults in our ideas.  This therefore means that Kuhn acknowledges that what united scientists is their shared beliefs, thus contrasting with Popper who argued that what united scientists was a search for the truth and how this search and a critical attitude has been imperative in converting the scientific community into the ‘Open Society.’  (Gattei, 2007:136) Within this examination of Kuhn and Popper’s debate, we see two radically different perspectives towards the foundations of scientific discovery.  Whilst Kuhn argued that the base principles of scientific paradigms should be respected and not deviated from, Popper pushed for scientists to become more open and receptive towards new ideas.  Kuhn’s theory of Paradigms are not as open to change and exploring ideas that are out of the norm.  This therefore means that the ideas and theories within Kuhn’s self-contained paradigms are at the risk of stagnating, whereas Falsificationism reduces the chance of this occurring, thus helping to keep scientific ideas fresh and new.  Kuhn argued that the only times where paradigms can be questioned is during a ‘Paradigm Shift,’ where such a large extent of anomalies appear that confidence is lost within a certain paradigm and it is superseded by a younger and superior paradigm in what is termed as a ‘Scientific Evolution.  Newtonian Mechanics being replaced by Einstein’s theory of relativity is such an instance of this, where a number of experiments emerged that falsified Newton’s theory, but confirmed Einstein’s ideas.  (Gauch, Jr. 2003: 85) Scientific revolutions and Paradigm Shifts are in themselves examples of Falsificationism, where when criticisms against a theory build up to such an extent that the whole theory has to be radically altered and overhauled.  This demonstrates one of the key ideas and strengths of Popperian Falsificationism: due to its very nature of self-improvement and self-criticism, it encourages science into having new and fresh ideas and stops it from stagnating.

4.2 Merton’s ‘CUDOS Norms’ and their relationship to Popperian Falsificationism

Popperian Falsificationism has led to an exponential growth in science, which can be partly attributed to Robert Merton’s 1942 theory of ‘the CUDOS Norms,’ which are a set of norms that have come to characterise the normative system of science and serve as an ethos that guides a scientist’s work.  (Bray, Storch 2014: 1) Whilst the CUDOS Norms are not unlike a Kuhnian Paradigm, they share many characteristics with Popperian Falsificationism.  CUDOS stands for Communism, Universalism, Disinterestedness and Organised Scepticism.  The first norm of ‘Communism’ implies that a scientist is obligated to publicly share their findings with the scientific community, otherwise they will stifle the cumulative growth of science.  (Bray, Storch 2014:6) Hugh G. Gauch Jr. (2003) argues that the importance of ‘Communism’ is that only through disclosing our arguments fully to the scientific community, can they be clearly observed and assessed, allowing each scientist an equal chance to engage with the evidence.  (Gauch Jr. 2003: 124) The second norm is ‘Universalism,’ which means that every scientific idea has to be assessed objectively and scientifically and the author’s reputation should not enter into it.  (Bray, Storch 2014: 7) ‘Disinterestedness’ means that scientists have to take an objective, unattached view of their work and they should pursue the desire of knowledge for solely academic purposes and not for personal gain.  (Bray, Storch 2014: 8) Lastly, ‘Organised Scepticism’ refers to how scientists should always remain doubtful and tentative about presenting their research results to others.  (Bray, Storch 2014: 10) The similarities between Popperian Falsificationism and Mertonian norms is an example of the influence that Falsificationism has had over science.  All four of the CUDOS norms encompass the main principle of Falsificationism.  ‘Communism’ and ‘Univeralism’ correspond with how scientific theories are open to be falsified by the entire scientific community.  ‘Disinterestedness’ and ‘Organised Scepticism’ relate to how scientists are expected to remain unattached from their theories, so that they are able to objectively falsify and refute them.  Another reason why Merton’s ‘CUDOS’ norms have helped Falsificationism advance science so rapidly is how they have helped to define the abstract concept of Falsificationism.  Merton’s ‘CUDOS’ norms serve as a paradigm that Falsificationists can follow.  However, the ‘Organised Scepticism’ norm is what distinguishes ‘the CUDOS Norms’ from one of Kuhn’s paradigms, as it has encouraged scientists to question their own ideas and the theories around them.  This has helped science develop into an open-belief society, which encourages the exploration of alternative theories and ideas.  This therefore has compelled Popper’s idea of science being built on cumulative knowledge.  Due to the Universalist nature of  the ‘CUDOS’ norms, a community of scientists can now openly criticise theories and ideas, as Falsificationism supports, without fear of being ridiculed for doing so.

  1. Conclusion

Within this essay, I have endeavoured to explain why Popperian Falsificationism has become the de facto standard methodology in science.  My hypothesis argued that Falsificationism has compelled science to become more receptive and open towards new ideas and theories by fuelling its transformation into an open-belief system.  It has also encouraged a new attitude towards self-improvement and self-enlightenment to emerge from science.  This has led to the creation of Popper’s notion of ‘the Open Society’ where scientists can explore alternative theories through opening up their ideas to be scrutinised by the scientific community.  If one of their theories can be falsified, then it can therefore be discarded and a better solution can be pursued.  However, the most significant impact that Falsificationism has had on science is how it has compelled it to advance so rapidly.  Its very nature has allowed scientists to freely question the world around them and to not be ridiculed and criticised for it, as what happens within Kuhn’s paradigms. This is what has prevented modern science from entering such a severe period of stagnation that the only thing that could break it free is a Scientific Revolution.

Word Count: 3175


Bray, D. Storch V.S. (2014) The Normative Orientations of Climate Scientists. Science and Engineering Ethics.  [Online] [No volume number available.] p. 1-17.  Available from: http://www.hvonstorch.de/klima/pdf/CUDOS.pdf [Accessed: 24th May 2015].

Cambier, H. 2006. ‘Is Popper’s Philsophy Anti-Foundationalist?’ in I. Jarvie, K. Millford and D. Miller (ed.) Karl Popper A Centenary Assessment. Ashgate Publishing Ltd: Aldershot.  145-157.

Gale, G. 1979 Theory of Science: An Introduction to the History, Logic, and Philosophy of Science.  McGraw-Hill, Inc: New York.

Gattei, S. 2006.  ‘Rationality without Foundations’ in I. Jarvie, K.Millford and D. Miller (ed.) Karl Popper A Centenary Assessment. Ashgate Publishing Limited: Aldershot.  131-145.

Gauch, H.G.Jr. 2003.  Scientific Method in Practice.  Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Lipton, P. 2007.  ‘The Ravens Revisited’ in A. O’Hear (ed.) Philosophy of Science.  Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.  75-97.

Popper, K. (1935) The Logic of Scientific Discovery, [No editors available.] New York, Routledge Classics (this edition 2002)

Popper, K. 1945.  The Open Society and its Enemies.  5th ed.  London: Routledge.

Psillos, S. 2007.  Philosophy of Science A-Z.  Edinburgh University Press Ltd: Edinburgh.

*Author’s Notes*

This was an essay I wrote for a Linguistics module that I took as an external module.  This module focused on how Linguistics relates to the rest of the scientific discipline.  It focused on themes such as the Mind Vs Body problem, where language comes from and Artificial intelligence.  This particular essay focused on the rise of Popperian Falsificationism and why it became so popular.  Surprisingly, considering I knew nothing about Linguistics, I did very well in this essay getting a high 2:1.