Karl Popper’s idea that science evolves by means of falsification and that it can also serve as a demarcation criterion to distinguish science from nonscience was quickly attacked by other philosophers of science who showed that not only was the idea unworkable in practice, it did not even correspond to actual scientific practice. My own book The Great Paradox of Science discusses the problems with falsification in some depth and argues that there are much better ways to understand the evolution of scientific theories.
Charlotte Sleigh extends the criticisms of falsification even wider, arguing a cadre of prominent economists and scientists used the concept to advance the cause of neoliberalism.
The greatest myth of neoliberalism is that it represents a neutral political perspective – a commitment to non-meddling – when in fact it must be sustained through aggressive pro-business propaganda and the suppression of organised labour. So, while Soros’s social activism has done much good in the world, it has been funded through economic activity that depends upon a systematic repression of debate and of human beings for its success. Having a philosophical cover-story for this kind of neoliberalism, that likens it to (Popperian) science, does it no harm at all.
Some unscrupulous researchers even used a Popperian frame to become, precisely, the ‘wicked scientists’ whose existence Medawar denied. As the historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway describe in Merchants of Doubt (2010), scientists in the US and the UK were co-opted as lobbyists for tobacco companies during the late-20th century to cast doubt upon research that revealed a link between smoking and cancer. No such link could be proved, in Popperian terms; and that room for doubt was ruthlessly exploited by the scientists’ paymasters. Many of the same scientists went on to work for fossil fuel lobbyists, casting doubt on the science of anthropogenic climate change. It doesn’t take much time on a search engine to find examples of Popperianism wielded by deniers. In a YouTube video from 2019, the Clear Energy Alliance (which DeSmog Blog lists as funded by oil interests) called upon the ‘legendary scientific philosopher Karl Popper’. The group’s central claim is that: ‘In order to know if a theory could be true, there must be a way to prove it to be false. Unfortunately, many climate change scientists, the media and activists are ignoring this cornerstone of science.’ At the same time, academics at recognised universities write scholarly sounding papers for the libertarian, neoliberal and sceptic Cato Institute arguing that ‘Popper’s evolutionary epistemology captures … the essence of science, but the conduct of climate science today is a far cry from [it]’. Such writers typically hail from the fields of economics and policy rather than science; untroubled by the critique of scientists, Popper’s contested and outdated account of science suits them perfectly.
The notion that science is all about falsification has done incalculable damage not just to science but to human wellbeing. It has normalised distrust as the default condition for knowledge-making, while setting an unreachable and unrealistic standard for the scientific enterprise. Climate sceptics demand precise predictions of an impossible kind, yet seize upon a single anomalous piece of data to claim to have disproved the entire edifice of combined research; anti-vaxxers exploit the impossibility of any ultimate proof of safety to fuel their destructive activism. In this sense, Popperianism has a great deal to answer for.
In my book, I argue that the conclusions of the scientific community need to be taken seriously because they are the consensus judgments of a community of people who have the knowledge and training to evaluate the evidence and arrive at reasoned judgments. These judgments are not infallible and can be modified and even reversed in light of new evidence or better theories but until such time, they are the best we have and we ignore them at our peril.
The conclusions of the scientific community do not all have the same degree of confidence and should not be accepted uncritically. One needs to develop a sense of discernment about how, as a layperson, one responds to those judgments. In his 1928 book Sceptical Essays, Bertrand Russell suggested some guidelines on how to arrive at the proper level of skepticism.
There are matters about which those who have investigated them are agreed; the dates of eclipses may serve as an illustration. There are other matters about which experts are not agreed. Even when the experts all agree, they may well be mistaken. Einstein’s view as to the magnitude of the deflection of light by gravitation would have been rejected by all experts twenty years ago, yet it proved to be right. Nevertheless the opinion of experts, when it is unanimous, must be accepted by non-experts as more likely to be right than the opposite opinion. The scepticism that I advocate amounts only to this: (1) that when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain; (2) that when they are not agreed, no opinion can be regarded as certain by a non-expert; and (3) that when they all hold that no sufficient grounds for a positive opinion exist, the ordinary man would do well to suspend his judgment. [My italics-MS]
These propositions may seem mild, yet, if accepted, they would absolutely revolutionise human life.
The problem with falsification is that it enables people to seize on some isolated piece of evidence to reject the conclusions of experts even when those experts have examined that same piece of evidence and found that it is not sufficient to alter the consensus.