Critical Thinking Media Competence

Falsification—links and conflicts with related theories

by Karsten_Harnisch


Falsification in general refers to the act of disproving a thesis. Concerning the philosophy of science, it is called falsifiability and has been developed by Karl R. Popper. In his opinion theses cannot be proved true, but only prove itself and it is impossible to form generalizations starting from individual statements because it appears to be logically impossible. He says that even the easiest imaginable theses and statements always include theoretical elements. That means that there always a thesis has to exist before individual statements can be made.

This theory has a lot of related theories but also many critics, facts that can be seen and assessed from different points of view and theories that refute it in some points.

Many critics of his theory accuse him not being part of the modern and professional philosophical world. They say if Karl R. Popper would be right with his theory, most of the professional philosophers would have wasted their time with their researches and their way of viewing things. In their opinion the differences between his theory and the thoughts of most of the other philosophers are too different.

In contrast to Popper, who says that scientists are always looking for falsifications, e.g. Thomas S. Kuhn represents the opinion that they are working within a conceptual paradigm to solve riddles and clarify anomalies. A theory that is closely related to the theory of falsifiability by Popper is the theory by Imre Lakatos. He says that theses, which are dropped after they have been falsified once, belong to naive falsifiability. There might have been many falsifications in history that have led to a change of theses, but generalizing this would be wrong. On the other hand he also criticizes Popper and expands his theory with saying that a new theory has to be able to explain the old theory and must be confirmed already to be accepted in science.

The changes of theories after the falsification of elements of those theses or the whole thesis form a topic, which can be seen from different points of view. In contrast to Popper, the theory of Holism by Willard Van Orman Quine says, that those falsifications cannot directly influence the thesis until it is proven, which part of the hypothesis is the reason for the falsification. A review of those theses would only be possible considering all connected elements/ parts of the theory. As a consequence of this review the whole thesis would be changed/ dropped.

A completely different point of criticism occurs considering the theory by Paul Feyerabend, who says that it is impossible to base scientific work on rational criteria. That means that there would be no reason, why a thesis should not be proved by using irrational methods.

The work of the scientists Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont shows that the theory of Karl R. Popper has his critics not only in the area of philosophy but also most of the affected academics represent a different point of view. They state that the theory by Popper does not characterize the way scientific research is working. Against his opinion, they represent the position that scientific theses are being used and seen as proved not because other theories have been falsified, but because of their success.

As always in philosophy there are many different points of view, just as in this case. It seems impossible to find a “right” answer to those questions and all of the theories that are related with this topic occur to be based on justifiable arguments. Consequently everybody has to decide on his own which theory suits best, whether it is the one about falsifiability by Karl R. Popper or one of the judicial theses described above.