Mano Singham Criticizes Falsification

His book has the word “Popper” on 28 pages:

Besides reading some of the article, I skimmed pages of the book that mention Popper. His basic point is that falsification is fallible (the evidence, criticism or background knowledge could be wrong, rather than the theory being refuted. and all evidence is theory-laden – interpreted by theories – and those theories can be wrong.). It doesn’t provide guarantees of being right. And we can’t narrow things down to the truth by eliminating some false theories.

These points are correct but miss some of Popper’s major points. One is that if you accept a piece of evidence (and some background knowledge and context), then you get a logical implication about refuting a theory. The same is not true about using evidence positively. Even if you accept the background knowledge and evidence, you still can’t confirm universal theories (you can confirm individual/specific theories like “that is a cat” with the evidence that a cat was observed there, but those are not the type of theory we’re primarily interested in. we want broad, generic theories like “all cats are mammals” or “all motion continues indefinitely without some force, like friction, to stop it” or “capitalism is a good idea”).

Based on a quick text search, the book doesn’t discuss this asymmetry argument at all. Quotes below are from the book:

But Popper’s insight was that we were looking for the wrong thing. Rather than trying to prove a theory right, a futile task, we should be trying to prove it wrong because such an occurrence would be unambiguous.

These considerations suggest that not the verifiability but the falsifiability of a system is to be taken as a criterion of demarcation. In other words: I shall not require of a scientific system that it shall be capable of being singled out, once and for all, in a positive sense; but I shall require that its logical form shall be such that it can be singled out, by means of empirical tests, in a negative sense: it must be possible for an empirical scientific system to be refuted by experience. (Popper 1968a, 40–41, emphasis in original)

The Popper block quote does not say “prove” and I think Singham doesn’t really understand fallibility or CR.

While the idea that you cannot affirmatively prove theories to be true may be discouraging, the falsification idea of Popper that you can unambiguously prove theories to be false is appealing because it seems to provide a way of backing into true theories. If we can systematically eliminate false theories, then we are not only preventing people from wasting time and effort and money pursuing blind alleys, surely we are getting closer to finding true theories, provided one understands the meaning of “true” to mean “the one remaining theory that has not yet been shown to be false.”

This is basically straw man level writing. Popper didn’t think we could prove anything with any method, including falsification.

If the Popper criterion of falsifiability were strictly followed, then Newton’s theory, and indeed all theories, would be rejected almost as soon as they were proposed. Yet as the many examples quoted here show, it is a fact that the scientific community has held on to certain theories for considerable lengths of time despite the existence of even serious discrepancies with experiments and observations.

No. Popper said we can hold on to theories to try to fix them. Also refuting something as the perfect truth does not refute it as a useful approximation. Also our measurements being imperfect doesn’t refute exact theories since measurement imprecision is compatible with theories like Newton’s Laws.

I skimmed up and he was talking about stuff like some measurements being far enough off it required guesses like an unseen planet (Vulcan). That kind of guess had apparently gone right previously when Newton’s laws predicted Neptune, so it was a reasonable guess. But yes there’s always ambiguity about whether the theory is wrong or something else is wrong like our understanding of what planets exist. We have to deal with that, in an imperfect fallible way, using critical discussion.

1 Like