I jest. Although it is possible that somewhere on this planet Karl Popper’s spirit may be torturing those scientists who believe that the idea of falsifiability is a dead concept and should be retired, it is highly unlikely. I do often fantasize that Karl Popper is regularly haunting Sean Carroll after reading his article on Edge.org. I do.
I know you’re probably wondering what I’m rabbiting on about. I’m about to launch into a discussion about falsifiability and convince you that it is critical to performing good science.
Now, I know that many of you might not have come across this idea of falsifiability, at least not in the scientific context so let me briefly explain.
capable of being tested and falsified by experiment or observation
The way the scientific method works is that we do an initial observation of something, do a bit of wondering and then formulate a hypothesis and it’s opposite, the null hypothesis. These statements are of a form that is testable and thereby falsifiable. For example, if I thought the world was shaped like a pineapple my hypothesis would be:
Hypothesis: Earth is shaped like a pineapple.
The null hypothesis would be: Earth is not shaped like a pineapple.
These are two statements that can be tested and are capable of being falsified, i.e. shown not to be true. Obviously, measurements of the circumference of Earth at different points has been done confirming that the Earth is not pineapple shaped.
So, once we have a testable statement, we then do experiments to determine if our hypothesis was correct or not. The best way to test a hypothesis is to try and disprove it, usually by applying the null hypothesis. Then based on our results we decide whether to accept or reject the null hypothesis. Basically, this is done because it is a stronger and more certain test of a hypothesis to look for situations where it is untrue. Oftentimes, because we’re human, we have tendencies to focus on or accept evidence that backs up our beliefs, ideas and hypotheses. This is called conformation bias. So, in order that hypotheses be testable they must be falsifiable and it is often best to start by looking for evidence that your hypothesis is wrong. By doing this you’re framing your idea in a way to try to disprove, and thereby falsify, your initial hypothesis.
So here’s the issue I have. Some people think the concept of falsifiability should be retired from science. I may only be a monkee, but this is the dumbest thing I have heard in a long time. I do believe that, if such a thing were possible, Karl Popper would be turning in his grave if he knew about this. (Karl Popper was a philosopher of science who was all about empirical falsification).
Let me clarify what is wrong with rejecting the concept of falsifiability. Carroll claims that some things can not be falsified (see the Edge.org link at the start of this article). He is completely correct that some things, at this time, cannot be falsified. In his essay about this he mentions predictions within the field of physics not matching observation and the possibility of multi-verses being the explanation for these discrepancies. Now, just because predictions, hypotheses and theories cannot be confirmed or tested completely now, doesn’t mean there won’t become a time when they can. The hypotheses/theories/predictions Carroll mentions have inherent falsifiability, it’s just really difficult to perform this falsification at this point in time.
The gap between what we can conceive and what we can confirm is not a good enough reason to remove the concept of falsifiability from science. Carroll doesn’t seem to be able to see that in order to be confirmed scientifically hypotheses and theories about this phenomenon must be falsifiable. His argument stems from him being unable to see beyond the current state of scientific observation and see that the overall philosophy of falsifiability still applies, even if it can’t be applied now. Methodological development is not static. Perhaps one day we will be able to observe and measure multi-verses? However, Sean Carroll thinks that because the technology doesn’t exist to falsify some theories, hypotheses and predictions in our time we should throw it out? No! Absolutely not! People like Sean Carroll need to realize that while certain theories can’t be falsified at this current time, it doesn’t mean that they are not falsifiable or that the philosophy of falsifiability is no longer crucial within science.
Lack of the methods to falsify now does not mean lack of future falsifiability!
It is a testament to man’s intelligence that we often formulate ideas and theories beyond our time, beyond our current methodological capabilities. The scientific method doesn’t need to be changed, some scientists just have to learn to be patient and realize that certain hypotheses may not be testable for some time, maybe not even in their lifetimes. Just because a hypothesis isn’t testable now, doesn’t mean it won’t be testable in the future and certainly does not negate the continued use of the concept of falsifiability.
Please help me save the concept of falsifiability. If you ever here someone suggesting we should retire the idea of falsifiability from science please re-educate them and perhaps gently suggest they should consider another career.