Popper Falsification Critique Essay

Post-Popperian Methodology of Economics pp 19-63 | Cite as

Falsification, Situational Analysis and Scientific Research Programs: The Popperian Tradition in Economic Methodology

Part of the Recent Economic Thought book series (RETH, volume 27)


No other philosopher and his work have influenced economic methodology as much as Karl Popper; yet, in over fifty years of philosophical writing Popper explicitly considered economics in only a few rare cases. From the economic profession’s introduction to falsificationist ideas in Hutchison (1938) to the recent spate of Lakatosian case studies in the history of economic thought,’ no major issue in economic methodology has been discussed without a significant Popperian “voice.” 2


Hard Core Situational Analysis Rationality Principle Auxiliary Hypothesis Economic Methodology 

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  1. Blaug, M. (1980), The Methodology of Economics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar

  2. Hands, D. W. (1984), “Blaug’s Economic Methodology,” Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 9, 293–303.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

  3. Feyerabend, P. K. (1970), “Consolations for the Spcialist,” in Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge. I. Lakatos and A. Musgrave (eds.). Cambridge University Press, 197–230.Google Scholar

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© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1992

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Criticism of Karl Popper in Martin Gardner's
Are Universes Thicker Than Blackberries?, Note 2

While the degree of confirmation cannot be quantified, there are cases where we feel that a theory has been proven for all practical purposes. Thus, Gardner says elsewhere, as Carl Sagan used to say, that Darwin's theory of Evolution by natural selection has been confirmed to a degree that renders it essentially a fact rather than just a "theory." I tend to agree with them. This is a matter of some interest because various people hotly dispute that Evolution has been properly confirmed, or has even avoided falsification. "Creationists" and recent advocates of "intelligent design" deny that conventional readings of the fossil record, or naturalistic interpretations of nature, are sufficient as scientific theories.

If a generalization from individuals becomes a matter of certainty, it can be because of "complete induction," i.e. examining all the individuals in questions, or, more abstractly, all the possibilities. Thus, if we wonder whether there were any ruling Queens of France, as there were Queens of England (e.g. Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Anne, etc.), all we have do is examine the list of the rulers of France. No women. A similar question, however, about Roman Emperors leads to a problem. From Augustus to 476, there are no ruling women; but the line of Emperors at Constantinople, extending to 1453, contains three women who ruled, beginning with Irene. Complete induction, therefore, can be a matter of defining the relevant individuals.

In science, when there is a theory that explains the facts well and really has no conceivable rival, this amounts to something like the abstract equivalent of complete induction, at least given the present state of understanding. Evolution by natural selection is in this category. Arguments against Evolution are to be discounted because usually they do not even amount to scientific arguments, or adduce relevant scientific evidence. The recent arguments for "intelligent design" involve a number of errors. The idea that natural systems cannot independently develop the level of organization that they have is contradicted by easily identifiable cases of self-organizing natural systems. The most conspicuous of these is the grammar of natural languages, which develops and changes without any intentional design or control. Why this all is possible in nature is a good question, but it is more a metaphysical than a scientific question, and the existence of a personal Deity is by no means necessary for such a explanation. Platonism, with a transcendent World of Forms, could handle the problem just as easily as theism.

More importantly, a theory of "intelligent design" implies, and is intended to imply, an intelligent Designer. Since such a Designer would be, and would be intended to be, a transcendent object, it would suffer from the drawbacks of all transcendent objects, namely, that they give rise to Antinomies:  contradictions that arise when any attempt is made to develop a rational theory of them. This is what Kant called "dialectical illusion," and it is one of the reasons why Kant did not think that speculative and theoretical metaphysical knowledge of the transcendent was possible.

Also, we expect that such a Designer would be omnipotent, but this characteristic renders all scientific inquiry unnecessary. Whatever we wish to explain in nature, it can be explained directly by the omnipotence of God. The sky is blue because God wants it to be blue and can make it be that way. Because God represents overkill for any explanation, scientific inquiry is necessarily naturalistic, which means only natural causes are considered. If, in the end, no natural explanation is possible, then supernatural ones are left, but this is a last resort only when the human imagination has certifiably run out of all explanations. There is really no way to know this, and, in any case, the supernatural explanations cannot be made rationally coherent anyway, as already noted. Therefore, supernatural or transcendent explanations are of no practical value in science.

The advocates of "intelligent design" sometimes accuse the scientific community of "methodological naturalism," as though this is a grave fault. Guilty as charged, but it is no fault:  it is the essence of science. In Kantian terms, phenomena are conditioned realities that can only be rationally explained in deterministic terms. If there is a God, or any other transcendent object (souls, karma, the Dharma, Nirvana, Forms, etc.), they are unconditioned realities, for which there is no rational understanding (as Buddhism actually says of Nirvana). Naturalism thus must be the method of science, or inquiry will simply be terminated in a rationally arbitrary fashion.

With complete induction, there is much in science that seems beyond doubt. This, however, does not solve the Problem of Induction or refute Popper's claim than science uses falsification rather than verification. Complete induction as an abstract matter, indeed, fits better with a coherence theory of truth rather than a correspondence theory. Gardner, properly, regards a correspondence theory as all but self-evident. Evolution, however, is not to be considered a "fact" because we are able to independently examine external reality, but just because nothing else in science, or in philosophy of science, contradicts or problematizes it. There is thus no rational alternative -- given our present state of understanding, which is the whole present system of human knowledge. Truth isn't coherence, but our manner of knowing is limited by coherence. This makes a kind of certainty in science possible, when a real Cartesian certainty may not be.

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