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Falsifiability only gained traction as anti-creation move?

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Odd, and it speaks very poorly of the science of the day. But one historian says that the historical data demonstrate that view.

Further to the new science mythbuster book, Newton’s Apple and Other Myths About Science, a reader kindly notes that we also learn from the paywalled review in Science:

Michael Gordin … [debunks] the widely accepted belief that science can be easily differentiated from pseudoscience simply by determining whether a particular theory is falsifiable. In addition to the philosophical shortcomings of this approach, he notes that if a negative result is sufficient to falsify a theory, then high-school science students manage to “falsify” most of Western science each week in their lab classes. Gordin goes on to analyze why this particular idea rose to such prominence in the 1980s. When various U.S. states legislated that creationism get equal time in school science classes, it became politically urgent to define why creation “science” was nothing of the kind. Part of the appeal of the falsification axiom (if it could never be disproved, it can’t be science) was that it was simple enough for nonscientists to grasp. Yet, when we look at history, falsification simply does not work as a definition of science. As Gordin explains, most historians and scientists accept a sociological definition: Science is what the scientific community says it is (e.g., peer-reviewed work in reputable journals). It’s not a perfect definition, nor a stable one, but it has the virtue of being the one by which scientists actually operate.

So whatever peers say is science is, and evidence is irrelevant?

And now they don’t want falsifiability because favoured theories don’t make the cut, right?

Given the state of peer review today, that’s part of the problem that physicists are anguishing over now.

Should string theory be accepted as science, without falsifiability, because boffins say it is cosmology’s free non-falsifiable lunch?

Note the sneer at “non-scientists.”

Just a minute here. If historian Gordin is right, many only agreed to the falsifiability criterion in the first place for political reasons—and now want to get rid of it… also for political reasons?

The problem is, of course, falsifiability was never thought of by most people as a “definition” of science, but more of an alarm system that non-scientists could use when things were going hairball.

When scientists want the alarm turned off, they lose a reputation for evidence-based thinking, along with credibility and moral authority. They may as well forget the science, join a Darwin trollblog (and specialize in creative profanity) or a crackpot cosmology site and do great graphics.

See also: Physicist: We can only argue positions based on philosophy The problem is that the philosophy that prevails gets to call itself “science” and decide what is or isn’t evidence and whether it matters. And that could just come down to a vote.

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10 Replies to “Falsifiability only gained traction as anti-creation move?

  1. 1
    PaV says:

    Instead of “falsifiability,” better to talk in terms of its equivalent: “testable.”

    ID is ‘testable.’ It was put to the test via the ENCODE project. It passed the test; Darwinism failed the test.

    What more needs be said.

    Maybe this needs to be added: what happened when Darwinism failed the test? Well, the best way of putting it is this: instead of ‘killing the messenger,’ here the Darwinian community ‘killed the “testers”.’

  2. 2
    Bob O'H says:

    And now they don’t want falsifiability because favoured theories don’t make the cut, right?

    No. Philosophers and historians of science have known about the problems with falsifiability for a long time: almost every scientific theory has been falsified, even ones which are now accepted. And falsifiability as an account of science fails because it doesn’t explain how theories become accepted.

    I agree with PaV that testability has to be a big part of science, but the details get tricky. You have to allow for theories to ‘fail’ a test, because the test includes subsidiary assumptions, and it might be these which cause the test to fail. The status of theories which pass tests also has to be considered: at what point does a theories pass enough tests to become “accepted”?

  3. 3
    kairosfocus says:


    Demarcation is a big, frustrating issue There is simply no one foolproof generally accepted stated criterion that categorises science and non-science.

    I think a review as to what came about and came to be called science, and how it works, generally by inference to best current explanation with some significant reference to empirical testing, observation and where possible experimentation, will be key.

    In that context, we end up pretty much like life, there is no one size fits all definition and list of neat criteria, but we are able to see certain generally accepted fields of study and things that by sufficiently close resemblance are similarly accepted as of the same family. This leads to a sort of ranking of the sciences, but when the hardest of the hard, physics, is toying with what looks pretty near untestable so far, that is a bit of concern, especially as the tendency to use “consensus” to drive public acceptance is a similarly worrying trend.

    I also think we need to more focus on warrant and degree of substantiation for knowledge claims, with strengths and limitations.

    For sure, Lakatos, Kuhn and Feyerabend put the knife to naive falsificationism 40 – 50 years ago.

    I cannot forget that the best respected modern theory ruled the roost for 200 years, then collapsed into a limiting case model, Newtonian Dynamics.

    Pessimistic induction, anyone?


  4. 4
    bill cole says:

    Hi Bob
    The status of theories which pass tests also has to be considered: at what point does a theories pass enough tests to become “accepted”?

    To have a theory you need a cause or causes to back up the effect you are observing. In General Relativity the cause is mass energy the effect is space-time curvature. If using the scientific method as a standard you then need to test if the cause you hypothesize is creating the effect. The better the statistical correlation, the better the hypothesis. If the correlation is high and repeatable then acceptance is very likely.

  5. 5
    News says:

    So falsifiability was not a generally accepted criterion but they fooled the public into believing it was, to accomplish a political goal?

    We should remember that when we hear alarms sounded about “anti-science” anywhere.

    I am sorry to say that, but cannot see an alternative.

    Maybe we will need to go through anti-science to get to science, and make evidence matter again.

  6. 6
    Virgil Cain says:

    To falsify evolutionism one needs to prove a negative. Evolutionism doesn’t have a positive case which means it lacks testability.

  7. 7
    redwave says:

    This is my take … Popper’s falsifiability:

    “My proposal is based upon an asymmetry between verifiability and falsifiability; an asymmetry which results from the logical form of universal statements. For these are never derivable from singular statements, but can be contradicted by singular statements.”

    Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery, p. 19

    For one to accept Popper’s proposition concerning scientific theories and hypotheses … whether or not a theoretical system belongs to empirical science, one must accept the following premises or assumptions (if his statements above are taken conclusively):

    1) There is an asymmetry between verifiability and falsifiability.

    2) The asymmetry in (1) results from the logical form of universal statements.

    3) Universal statements in (2) are not derivable from singular statements.

    4) Universal statements can be contradicted by singular statements.

    5) Scientific theories are universal statements. (sec. 37)

    Popper’s criterion of falsifiability (demarcation) is, for Popper, a method for determining whether a theoretical system belongs to empirical science. In The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Popper develops his theory of theories, his propositions, for an epistemology of empirical science, from a detailed philosophical and logical discourse concerning basic statements, formal logical approaches, and linguistic analyses for the testability of scientific theories.

    Falsification is not exactly falsifiability. A falsified statement might render a theory falsifiable if the falsified statement is a basic statement without which the theory cannot stand. Popper’s proposition allowed theories to be a set of statements about occurrences (set of occurrences is an event) for which modification of statements did not falsify the set in toto, under certain conditions of testability. Falsifiability is too often used in a simplistic, non-analytic, manner to which Popper made several attempts at clarifying a consistent use.

    The statement, “Darwinism is not falsifiable”, is not equivalent to, “Basic statements for the theory of natural selection are not falsified” (or, basic statements for the theory of natural selection are true). The first statement says, according to Popper’s proposition, that Darwinism is not empirical. The statement’s generality is not consistent with falsifiability … it is not a basic statement from empiricism. The second statement is falsified if one or more basic statements are found to fail through an empirical test. If one replaces Darwinism and/or natural selection, above, with Strings or Multiverse, Popper’s proposition concerning empirical tests are valid within his logical system, if and when string theory or multiverse theory are analyzed through Popper’s falsification proposition. The “beauty and elegance” of the advanced mathematical formulations in string theory are not within the purview of Popper’s falsification proposition … just as religion, mathematics, metaphysics, fine art, dance, et cetera. Popper’s falsifiability concerns universal statements of scientific theories to be taken as empirical science and has little or nothing to do with “phenomenological” experiences in human experiencing, which are logically unrelated to empirical scientific inquiry of physical phenomena.

    This could remind us of Newton’s declaration, except Popper rejected induction as a proper logical approach to science:

    “I have not as yet been able to discover the reason for these properties of gravity from phenomena, and I do not feign hypotheses. For whatever is not deduced from the phenomena must be called a hypothesis; and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, or based on occult qualities, or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy. In this philosophy particular propositions are inferred from the phenomena, and afterwards rendered general by induction.”
    Popper’s logic is deductive, which he made clear in his propositional approach. He gave no method for “rendered general by induction”. The method of induction is denied legitimacy by Popper, as a logical method for an epistemology of empirical science. One can see this in the rough review of Popper’s assumptions given.

    “For Popper, a theory is scientific only if it is refutable by a conceivable event. Every genuine test of a scientific theory, then, is logically an attempt to refute or to falsify it, and one genuine counter-instance falsifies the whole theory. In a critical sense, Popper’s theory of demarcation is based upon his perception of the logical asymmetry which holds between verification and falsification: it is logically impossible to conclusively verify a universal proposition by reference to experience (as Hume saw clearly), but a single counter-instance conclusively falsifies the corresponding universal law.”

    One can ‘deduce’, from “The Logic of Scientific Discovery” and not a simplified scaled down version, that “a whole theory” is constituted from a set of basic statements concerning occurrences and if each and every basic statement, of the set, is necessary for the whole theory to stand and not fail, then a falsified statement could render the theory nonempirical … the theory fails testability. But one can also deduce that theories are not necessarily a set of interdependent basic statements and could stand (not fail) if and when a statement is modified and testable, in which case the statement was not basic, in the sense of Popper’s formal logic. Popper’s criterion of falsifiability is not black or white for all theories at all times for all purposes.

    Falsifiability as a simplified method, ” … a theory is scientific only if it is refutable by a conceivable event.”, does not ‘do justice’ to Popper’s propositional system, stripping away the analytical details and delivering up an epistemic distortion. Popper makes clear his thoughts that scientific knowledge is not equivalent with inductive methods, that universal statements are not derivable by singular (basic) statements. He also makes clear that the growth of knowledge is not reducible to the problems inherent in linguistic analyses. These are two areas of concern for Popper. Many science practitioners appear to forget that Popper grouped mathematics with religion and metaphysics, which helps clarify the distinctions (demarcations) Popper wanted to propose for the theoretical process.

  8. 8
    Robert Byers says:

    Its funny, probably true, that falsibility was invented to beat creationism.
    Actually creationism failure , if so and of coarse not, to be science is not why its banned. its banned because if not science then it must be theological.
    Actually it could be just incompetent science without being religious despite its conclusions.

    Is evolution science therefore? NO !
    Evolution can’t be falsified because its evidence is based on non biological evidences. If you think about twice.

  9. 9
    Bob O'H says:

    So falsifiability was not a generally accepted criterion but they fooled the public into believing it was, to accomplish a political goal?

    No, it’s more complicated than that. Philosophers had shown the problems with falsification by 1970: Lakatos and Feyerabend were big critics. But scientists were not (and in a lot of them still aren’t) aware of these criticisms.

  10. 10
    Virgil Cain says:

    Bob O’H:

    Philosophers had shown the problems with falsification by 1970: Lakatos and Feyerabend were big critics. But scientists were not (and in a lot of them still aren’t) aware of these criticisms.

    That is because most scientists don’t care what philosophers have to say about science.

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