- It's commonly believed that science provides us with "truth", and this makes it easy to deny when scientific theories don't always line up with our personal experiences, or when science changes over time.
- The principle of verificationism was one of the dominant concepts in the philosophy of science, saying that the only meaningful statements are ones that we can verify via testing and our senses.
- However, this principle has been widely discredited and has now been replaced by the principle of falsificationism (a theory is currently acceptable if it hasn't yet been disproven), which provides us a much better description of how science works.
- Understanding falsificationism will set you way ahead of the pack when it comes to understanding how science works.
It’s been a while since I’ve written on the topic of science in a general sense, but this is also one that has a lot to do with philosophy, my own undergraduate degree.
In my undergrad, I did a lot of writing about the topic of verificationism for a long senior year paper. Verificationism refers to the philosophical belief that only statements that are empirically verifiable (capable of being tested and proved) are intellectually meaningful.
Under such a belief, things which aren’t verifiable (religion, aesthetics, all kinds of other things) are effectively just not worth thinking about in any rational sense - they’re outside the circle of things that you can argue about. Everything outside of that circle is just personal value or preference.
Let’s take a step back and explore some of the related concepts in philosophy real quick, so that you can more fully understand the subject at hand.
There are two major branches of modern philosophy: analytic, and continental. These distinctions began to arise in the 19th century to describe two major schools of thought. Analytic philosophers tend to be from English-speaking countries, and are more closely related to science and the objective world. Continental philosophers tend to be from mainland Europe, and are more closely related to ethics and history. This is a vast oversimplification, but gives you an idea of who the players are on each team.
Analytic philosophers tend to get more into thought problems, carefully analyzing individual problems with language, logic, science, and more. From analytic philosophy, a movement called logical positivism emerged - their main belief was in the concept of verificationism, which allowed them to dismiss large chunks of knowledge that they didn’t like as effectively meaningless (or only emotionally meaningful). Science, they believed, should rely strictly on verificationism.
This almost makes sense, when we’re talking about science. After all, science relies on the careful testing of hypotheses to sort out the true from the false. By verifying which statements are true, science advances.
However, other philosophers began to poke a lot of holes in this theory, pointing out ways in which this principle didn’t always make sense. Others advocated a “weak verificationism” which allowed for the principle to be applied, but for the rules to be bent a bit as needed.
In 1951, Quine published “Two Dogmas of Empiricism”, which argued that verificationism doesn’t work because we can’t understand concepts in isolation. If I say “this table is blue,” for example, we can verify this by looking at the table, but this requires us to have a lot of concepts beforehand - what a table is, what blue is, how language works, etc.
As a result, we tend to see things in sort of giant “webs” of related concepts and meanings, and it’s hard to take things apart. If we’re willing to accept that there can be change done to that web (for example, a colorblind person who can’t tell blue and green apart), we can accept that this “verified” truth may still be malleable. Webs of meaning can be changed or modified over time, even if they appear to be solid at first. The Quine-Duhem thesis is a simplification of this concept - basically, it says that theories of thought come in bundles, and that we can't separate individual theories from the interrelated bundle in which we experience them.
Popper’s The Logic of Scientific Discovery proposed an alternative: falsification. Under this theory, we cannot necessarily prove a lot of things, but we can very easily disprove a great many things. If the table from the above example may be seen as either blue or green, we may not specifically be able to prove that it will only be seen as blue, but we can definitely falsify the statement “this table is red”, because we know that it’s Not That. Likewise, while it may take a lot of evidence to “prove” a theory, it takes a much relatively smaller amount to disprove a theory.
This shifts the emphasis: scientific theories aren’t necessarily true, they’re just the least false.
A big blow was the realization that science, while it is continually moving forward, doesn’t always prove things - sometimes, a theory may initially have some evidence behind it, but then later be disproven by a superior competing theory as more evidence (and/or a newer theory) becomes available.
Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was a history of science, intended to show the ways in which science isn’t always clear cut and to dispel the common mistaken belief that science is constantly moving in a single direction, by analyzing the ways in which revolutions in science can completely change the way that certain fields work.
This tends to support the concept of falsificationism - when there are multiple theories that may all explain a single phenomenon, it’s not the most verifiable, but rather, the least falsifiable theory, that we stick to.
There are numerous examples of falsification at work. For an example that hits close to home with diet, we have the former hypothesis that dietary fat was the cause of weight gain and unhealthiness, which led to the health-craze of the 80’s and the wave of low-fat foods. At the time, this theory seemed to hold water based on the current evidence. Then, we got more evidence, and it became clear that this theory isn’t true.
To the public, who aren’t versed in how science works, this seems remarkably confusing, and undermines their trust in science as a whole. If science can change its mind, they reason, then there’s no real truth to be had, and it will change its mind again repeatedly in the future. The reality is that yes, it does change its mind, but that we are still constantly moving towards some version of truth, even if that means revolutions in scientific thought which significantly change the course of belief along the way.
In short, science doesn’t provide us with truths, and this is one of the biggest misconceptions about it. Since people believe that science provides concrete “truths”, this means that they can believe that these truths are wrong when they contradict their own lived experiences.
But science doesn’t provide us with truths - it just provides us with theories which are constantly evolving as more and more evidence is gathered and more and more sub-theories are disproven. This is why we can have multiple theories to explain roughly the same phenomenon that have very different implications.
A study which reveals a positive or negative result isn’t proof - it’s just evidence that more research is needed. A lot of negative results mean that a theory is incorrect. A lot of positive results mean that a theory could be still incorrect, but that it does at least work for the time being. With more evidence, there may still be very serious changes in the meaningfulness of that same theory.
Overall, this is a stronger position than the common conception of simple truth-proving or simple verficiationism. This also explains why "alternative" science is usually bullshit - it's just pseudoscience, disproven science, or discredited science, and by definition will rarely work. Theories which "go against the grain" of the current body of scientific evidence are rarely revolutionary - much more frequently, they're just untested, flimsily supported by evidence, and unlikely to pan out.
Above all, I always recommend the precautionary principle - be skeptical of new concepts until robust evidence arrives on the scene, and don't simply swallow whole something that you've seen on your Facebook feed until you've gone and done some research.
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