Karl Popper on falisification

The following excerpt was originally published in Conjectures and Refutations (1963) by Karl Popper. In this passage Popper describes the pitfalls of confirmatory evidence, unifying theories and safe predictions.

“After the collapse of the Austrian empire there had been a revolution in Austria: the air was full of revolutionary slogans and ideas, and new and often wild theories. Among the theories which interested me Einstein’s theory of relativity was no doubt by far the most important. The three others were Marx’s theory of history, Freud’s psycho-analysis, and Alfred Adler’s so-called “individual psychology.”

There was a lot of popular nonsense talked about these theories, and especially about relativity (as still happens even today), but I was fortunate in those who introduced me to the study of this theory. We all—the small circle of students to which I belong—were thrilled with the result of Eddington’s eclipse observations which in 1919 brought the first important
confirmation of Einstein’s theory of gravitation. It was a great experience for us, and one which had a lasting influence on my intellectual development.

The three other theories I have mentioned were also widely discussed among students at the time. I myself happened to come into personal contact with Alfred Adler, and even to cooperate with him in his social work among the children and young people in the working-class districts of Vienna where he had established social guidance clinics.

It was the summer of 1919 that I began to feel more and more dissatisfied with these three theories—the Marxist theory of history, psycho-analysis, and individual psychology; and I began to feel dubious about their claims to scientific status. My problem perhaps first took the simple form, “What is wrong with Marxism, psycho-analysis, and individual psychology? Why are they so different from physical theories, from Newton’s theory, and especially from the theory of relativity?”

To make this contrast clear I should explain that few of us at the time would have said that we believed in the truth of Einstein’s theory of gravitation. This shows that it was not my doubting the truth of those three other theories which bothered me, but something else. Yet neither was it that I nearly felt mathematical physics to be more exact than sociological or psychological type of theory. Thus what worried me was neither the problem of truth, at that stage at least, nor the problem of exactness or measurability. It was rather that I felt that these other three theories, though posing as science, had in fact more in common with
primitive myths than with science; that they resembled astrology rather than astronomy.

I found that those of my friends who were admirers of Marx, Freud, and Adler, were impressed by a number of points common to these theories, and especially by their apparent explanatory power. These theories appear to be able to explain practically everything that happened within the fields to which they referred. The study of any of them seemed to have the effect of an intellectual conversion or revelation, open your eyes to a new truth hidden from those not yet initiated. Once your eyes were thus opened you saw confirmed instances everywhere: the world was full of verifications of the theory. Whatever happened always confirmed it. Thus its truth appeared manifest; and unbelievers were clearly people who did not want to see the manifest truth; who refuse to see it, either because it was against their class interest, or because of their repressions which were still “un-analyzed” and crying aloud for treatment.

The most characteristic element in this situation seemed to me the incessant stream of confirmations, of observations which “verified” the theories in question; and this point was constantly emphasize by their adherents. A Marxist could not open a newspaper without finding on every page confirming evidence for his interpretation of history; not only in the news, but also in its presentation — which revealed the class bias of the paper — and especially of course what the paper did not say. The Freudian analysts emphasized that their theories were constantly verified by their “clinical observations.” As for Adler, I was
much impressed by a personal experience. Once, in 1919, I reported to him a case which to me did not seem particularly Adlerian, but which he found no difficulty in analyzing in terms of his theory of inferiority feelings, Although he had not even seen the child. Slightly shocked, I asked him how he could be so sure. “Because of my thousandfold experience,” he replied;
whereupon I could not help saying: “And with this new case, I suppose, your experience has become thousand-and-one-fold.”

What I had in mind was that his previous observations may not have been much sounder than this new one; that each in its turn had been interpreted in the light of “previous experience,” and at the same time counted as additional confirmation. What, I asked myself, did it confirm? No more than that a case could be interpreted in the light of a theory. But this meant very little, I reflected, since every conceivable case could be interpreted in the light Adler’s theory, or equally of Freud’s. I may illustrate this by two very different examples of human behavior: that of a man who pushes a child into the water with the intention of
drowning it; and that of a man who sacrifices his life in an attempt to save the child. Each of these two cases can be explained with equal ease in Freudian and Adlerian terms. According to Freud the first man suffered from repression (say, of some component of his Oedipus complex), while the second man had achieved sublimation. According to Adler the first man
suffered from feelings of inferiority (producing perhaps the need to prove to himself that he dared to commit some crime), and so did the second man (whose need was to prove to himself that he dared to rescue the child). I could not think of any human behavior which could not be interpreted in terms of either theory. It was precisely this fact—that they always fitted, that they were always confirmed—which in the eyes of their admirers constituted the strongest argument in favor of these theories. It began to dawn on me that this apparent strength was in fact their weakness.

With Einstein’s theory the situation was strikingly different. Take one typical instance — Einstein’s prediction, just then confirmed by the finding of Eddington’s expedition. Einstein’s gravitational theory had led to the result that light must be attracted by heavy bodies (such as the sun), precisely as material bodies were attracted. As a consequence it could be calculated that light from a distant fixed star whose apparent position was close to the sun would reach the earth from such a direction that the star would seem to be slightly shifted away from the sun; or, in other words, that stars close to the sun would look as if
they had moved a little away from the sun, and from one another. This is a thing which cannot normally be observed since such stars are rendered invisible in daytime by the sun’s overwhelming brightness; but during an eclipse it is possible to take photographs of them. If the same constellation is photographed at night one can measure the distance on the two photographs, and check the predicted effect.

Now the impressive thing about this case is the risk involved in a prediction of this kind. If observation shows that the predicted effect is definitely absent, then the theory is simply refuted. The theory is incompatible with certain possible results of observation—in fact with results which everybody before Einstein would have expected.[1] This is quite different from the situation I have previously described, when it turned out that the theories in question were compatible with the most divergent human behavior, so that it was practically impossible to describe any human behavior that might not be claimed to be a
verification of these theories.

These considerations led me in the winter of 1919-20 to conclusions which I may now reformulate as follows.

  1. It is easy to obtain confirmations, or verifications, for nearly every theory — if we look for confirmations.
  2. Confirmations should count only if they are the result of risky predictions; that is to say, if, unenlightened by the theory in question, we should have expected an event which was incompatible with the theory — an event which would have refuted the theory.
  3. Every “good” scientific theory is a prohibition: it forbids certain things to happen. The more a theory forbids, the better it is.
  4. A theory which is not refutable by any conceivable event is non-scientific. Irrefutability is not a virtue of a theory (as people often think) but a vice.
  5. Every genuine test of a theory is an attempt to falsify it, or to refute it. Testability is falsifiability; but there are degrees of testability: some theories are more testable, more exposed to refutation, than others; they take, as it were, greater risks.
  6. Confirming evidence should not count except when it is the result of a genuine test of the theory; and this means that it can be presented as a serious but unsuccessful attempt to falsify the theory. (I now speak in such cases of “corroborating
    evidence.”)
  7. Some genuinely testable theories, when found to be false, are still upheld by their admirers — for example by introducing ad hoc some auxiliary assumption, or by reinterpreting the theory ad hoc in such a way that it escapes refutation. Such a procedure is always possible, but it rescues the theory from refutation only at the price of destroying, or at least lowering, its scientific status. (I later described such a rescuing operation as a “conventionalist twist” or a “conventionalist stratagem.”)

One can sum up all this by saying that the criterion of the scientific status of a theory is its falsifiability, or refutability, or testability.”

Do not only look for information which confirms your opinions, ideas or beliefs. In doing so you are obtaining information through biased means. You are acting in defence of your current position. Not with the desire for progression. Instead, be open to, and actively search for, information which contradicts them.

Hey. I’m Alex Murrell. I'm a Planner at Epoch Design in Bristol where I help deliver highly creative, innovative and effective pack, instore and online communications for some of the world’s biggest FMCG brands. Want to know more? You can find me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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