Falsification and neoliberalism

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.


  1. consciousness razor says

    Doesn’t you approach come with some problems too? The fact that there are a bunch of neoliberal “experts” who all think the same thing shouldn’t raise our confidence in that, as it typically should when scientists in some field agree about something. These people represent the interests and perspectives of the well-connected, highly-educated, rich, upper classes. If they’re not merely oblivious about the rest of society, which is bad enough, they are usually hostile toward it. Yet they have tons of power, not only in government (which makes it undemocratic) but in practically all other areas of life as well, including those which allow the rest of us to even obtain information in the first place and communicate with one another about it.

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    These propositions may seem mild, yet, if accepted, they would absolutely revolutionise human life.

    Russell’s propositions rest on a presumption of widespread acceptance of factual uncertainty. In 1928, a time of apparent increasing prosperity and security (just one year before the global stock market crash yanked the carpet from under such social illusions, apparently forever), perhaps such a view seemed possible. These days -- fuggedaboutit.

  3. Mano Singham says

    cr @#1,

    But a ‘bunch’ of people comes nowhere close to being a consensus view in the field, as occurs in science.

  4. consciousness razor says

    But a ‘bunch’ of people comes nowhere close to being a consensus view in the field, as occurs in science.

    Well, you don’t need to interpret my phrasing too rigidly, and that certainly wasn’t my intention. Just put “a consensus” there, and I’m fine with it.

    The point is that if “most or nearly all” neoliberal experts (or whatever is required for a “consensus”) agree on X, then it’s not the case that X is more likely to be right. Unlike scientists, these people are habitually wrong, they have turned wrongness into an artform, and they make a very good living off of it. That wrongness is routinely used to benefit themselves and to hurt us.

    It can come in various forms. It may be an incorrect understanding of the plain old facts about things/events in the world, including revisionist whitewashing of history and all sorts of things like that. Or they may be morally/politically wrong proposals, about what should happen in society, how society and its institutions should be structured, which things ought to have priority for us, etc.

    In the extreme case, exactly 100% of them might agree on whatever it is. And that by itself wouldn’t do anything at all to increase my credence that this incestuous lot of greedy, manipulative assholes is correct about it. Do you see where I’m coming from with that?

    Of course, in practice, it’s not usually a full 100%, and besides, I don’t think that’s needed in order for it to qualify as a “consensus.” But you define that term however you like, and I don’t think it will make a very substantial difference.

  5. Mano Singham says

    The point I am making is that you can get a consensus about a single school of thought, like neoliberalism, but that is not a consensus of the people in the broad field of economics or politics.

    In science you can get a consensus among people who hold to a particular theory (say cold fusion) but getting a consensus among the scientific community in general is not easy and when it occurs suggests a stronger theory.

  6. consciousness razor says

    The point I am making is that you can get a consensus about a single school of thought, like neoliberalism, but that is not a consensus of the people in the broad field of economics or politics.

    I understand, but this raises the question of how dominant this school of thought is in the broad fields of economics and politics. Are there just as many democratic socialists in these elite circles? Clearly not. A small number of upper class nitwits have been running the show for several decades, and that class is strongly correlated with the ideology in question. There certainly are other schools of thought, no doubt about it, but they’re silenced and marginalized and denounced at every opportunity.

    And who even gets to count these people as “experts” on anything? They’re hardly different from “the establishment,” and so they are ones who do almost all of the counting. It’s not you or me or lots of other people, as far as our whole country is concerned. Everybody else is a fringe non-expert, because they and the media which they own say so. Thus, we’re supposed to treat them with deference or reverence, merely because they’ve anointed themselves as the proper holders of powerful/high-status positions, not because of their better methodologies, because they’re more competent, or anything along those lines.

    So, as a friendly suggestion, it’s good if your position doesn’t reinforce any of that meritocratic bullshit. It does sound sort of reasonable, but maybe it could use some tweaking. You just don’t want to leave the door open for use (or misuse) by neoliberals or others, like falsificationism and so on.

    One thing that strikes me is that “expert” doesn’t really give us a handle on the fact that there are many different types in many different fields — they’re all being lumped together with this one pretty vague English word. So, the idea that a consensus of them means the same thing in every case is suspicious. I mean, I’m coming from the humanities side of this (music specifically). But without implying some kind of hierarchy, it just sounds like a rather extraordinary claim to make, if it’s taken to be about how we should all relate in every circumstance to all kinds of experts. We could at least try to make some useful distinctions about them, concerning which methods they use, how they come to be regarded as experts, or other stuff like that. It makes talking about these things a little messier, but if that’s what the world is really like, some messiness is fine with me.

  7. fentex says

    I have a suspicion that honesty is the nub of the problem Consciousness Razor is expressing, and how the term ‘Expert’ hides the problem of dishonesty.

    Which reminds me (on the general topic of neo-liberal thought) of a great problem of economics; much of the theory that has dominated these last three or four decades also doesn’t allow for dishonesty.

  8. Mano Singham says

    cr @#6,

    I think there is a qualitative difference between the world of science and that of other disciplines As Thomas Kuhn pointed out, in most areas, different schools of thought get refined and develop but never disappear. So in music for example, one has many different genres co-existing and one would never speak of any one of them being the ‘best’ and the rest getting ignored.

    It is a peculiarity of science that in any area after an initial period with a multiplicity of paradigms coexisting, one paradigm emerges dominant and all the others become marginalized. This is why the consensus opinions in science are so dominant.

  9. consciousness razor says

    I think there is a qualitative difference between the world of science and that of other disciplines As Thomas Kuhn pointed out, in most areas, different schools of thought get refined and develop but never disappear. So in music for example, one has many different genres co-existing and one would never speak of any one of them being the ‘best’ and the rest get ignored.

    True enough, but maybe a more salient point is that we’ve developed our own methods for understanding music over the centuries. Although much of it is empirical (very hard not to be), it is not science, because there is a difference. We haven’t needed science for that all this time and we still don’t — so thanks but no thanks. We’re not going to make it science, because that would be dumb. Even though science is great, it’s just not what everybody does. So musicologists should never apologize for being non-scientists, because that’s not actually a genuine problem for anyone involved in a non-scientific field. (However, like everybody else, they should apologize if their work is crap, as occasionally some of it is.)

    Anyway…. Philosophers of science can of course say whatever they want about science, but the whole notion that epistemology itself hangs on that … frankly that just seems more unhinged the longer I think about it.

    We need some kind of neutral and pluralistic language, in order to talk about these things (expertise, etc.) without imposing the standards of one type of intellectual activity on all of the others. And in addition of that, like I stressed before, we have to consider the social environment where all of it happens: certain people (neoliberals and others) have been given the status of “expert” for entirely the wrong reasons. It’s really not about them “doing science wrong,” when we’re not even talking about a scientific discipline in the first place. It’s more like this: a bunch of hacks and useful idiots rise to the top in our system because so much of it is so broken from ignorance, corruption, nepotism, racism, sexism, classism, etc.

  10. friedfish2718 says

    Such turgid, murky thinking.
    “Falsification and neoliberalism”
    What about “Falsification and classical liberalism”?
    What about “Falsification and paleo-liberalism”?
    What about “Falsification and conservatism”?
    What about “Falsification and marxism”?
    The piece does not explain what “neoliberalism” is about and how it relates to falsibility.
    Science is just one of many philosophies. Before Newton, Science was called Natural Philosophy.
    The oldest scientific journal is “Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society”; the use of the word philosophical in the title refers to natural philosophy, which was the equivalent of what would now be generally called science.
    Newton’s main contribution to science is the incorporation of mathematics into natural philosophy. One asks: why the Ancient Greeks used mathematics in engineering and not in physics and biology?
    The Ancient Greeks applied mathematics to astronomy but the underlying philosophy was not quite correct.
    What drives physics: math? philosophy? Math is not synonymous with physics.
    The human is rational, emotional, political.
    Science cannot be divorced from politics. In USSR time, lysenko-ism was political. Today, CACA-ism is political (C.A.C.A. = Catastrophic Anthropogenic Climate Alteration).
    Science cannot be divorced from emotionalism which is the basis of aversion of many towards falsibility.
    When one is wedded emotionally to Theory X, one is blind, deaf, insensitive to any evidence of Theory X is incorrect, perhaps less blind, less deaf, less insensitive to any evidence that Theory X is incomplete.
    The issue of falsibility versus incompleteness is not addressed.
    Because of emotional attachment to a particular natural philosophy, scientific paradigm changes only when the current generation of professional scientists dies away.

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