Critical Thinking Media Competence

Falsification—a powerful but also provoking tool

by Fabian Meyer (fabmey)


Falsification, a theory developed by Karl R. Popper, describes the possibility of proving a given theory wrong by finding at least one feasible counter argument.

Freud’s Oedipus complex, which is the inherent wish to have sexual contact with the parent of the other sex, is a common example of a theory, that is non scientific in the eyes of falsification. In his theory the source of all behavior - love, hate, affection, laziness, jealousy etc. - can be located in the Oedipus complex that every human is born with. Freud’s basis is defining that everyone has an inborn sexual desire, which already is the first point of his theory that cannot be investigated or proven, hence its scientific value is low. Nevertheless the second and more serious problem is the fact that Freud’s reasoning is always coming back to his own theory - a theory that technically still has to be verified. Because of this not provable loop argumentation Freud’s theory is more alike a paradox than a plausible theory or even axiom.

In general scientific paradoxes are very difficult to verify or falsify. Schrödinger’s cat is probably one of the most popular paradoxes. Investigating quantum mechanical relations and associations Erwin Schrödinger, an Austrian physicist, created his paradox thought experiment in 1935. A non-transparent room equipped with a toxic gas trap that will be activated by a radioactive trigger. Furthermore the trap will be activated as soon as the room is opened. From the outside a cat kept in this room can be seen both dead and alive at the same time, since it is impossible to find out whether the cat is not dead yet or dead already. Here the common way of falsification is very interesting: since knowledge about quantum mechanics is still limited and hence the paradox cannot be falsified (yet), scientist and physicist develop other theories to support or rebut the outcome of the experiment. One theory suggests that because the system (cat in deadly room) cannot be measured from the outside (by looking into the room) it is only possible to calculate a probability of the cat’s condition (Copenhagen interpretation). Another theory is the existence of multiple worlds or “parallel universes” (Many-worlds interpretation). This theory suggests that there is at least one universe existing in which the cat would be alive and also at least one other universe in which the cat would be dead.

The “Millennium Prize Problems” are the last example that shall be focused on. Published in the year 2000 they originally described seven unsolved mathematical problems which, in case they can be verified, would be rewarded with a US$1,000,000 prize. Since in 2013 one problem (Poincaré conjecture) was solved, suggested solutions for the currently six remaining problems can be made by anyone. Here falsification represents a powerful tool to verify as well as falsify a “solution”. After a suggestion was made mathematicians around the world who are investigating the same or a similar problem will try to find the one case, condition or example that proves the solution wrong. But here their motivation can be seen in bifocal perspectives: on the one hand they take care that in the end the exact solution will be found and published. On the other hand they also take care that they will have their own chance to achieve the prize. Not only in this example it becomes obvious that falsification often, possibly mostly, goes hand in hand with cognitive dissonance caused by the conflict in motivation.

Falsification is a powerful tool for proving theories and circumstances, not only in science but also in daily life. In fact children seem to have a natural sense and understanding of the principle of falsification in situations whose outcome is not the way they wanted or expected it to be. Almost instantly they are looking for counter arguments that can prove their point and falsify e.g. their parent’s decision (“...but last time you/Mommy/Daddy said I could...”), carrying conflict and discussion inevitably to a higher level where it has to be solved.