Archive for the ‘Karl Popper’ Category

Absolute certainty is elusive

December 23, 2007

You might think that all swans are white because you have never seen a black one. But there are black swans, in Australia. Karl Popper, a famous philosopher, held that even the so-called laws of science are hypothetical, subject to being disproved someday by new evidence. You only need one counterexample to disprove a claim of “never” or “always.” All swans are white — until you see a black one. But you can never tell when that will happen.Perfect knowledge is seldom if ever available to humans. For one thing, new information is constantly arriving, and human learning is constantly expanding.

While we can’t be absolutely certain, we can be certain enough to make a reasonable decision.

In the U.S. court system there are various standards of certainty. A criminal trial requires a much higher level of certainty than a civil trial to convict a person. (Consequently, an individual may be found not guilty in a criminal trial and guilty in a civil trial, e.g. O. J. Simpson).

In our everyday lives, we have to pick an appropriate standard of certainty. With trivial matters the level of certainty can be low, but for nonreversible decisions such as when choosing a spouse or a president, a much higher level of certainty is required.

Be as certain as you need to be.

Unspun by Brooks Jackson and Kathleen Hall Jamieson

The hallmark of science is its ability to explain things

August 7, 2007

“The hallmark of science is not its ability to forecast the future, but its ability to explain things – to increase our understanding of the workings of the universe. The role of predictions in science is to help us distinguish competing explanations.”

“Science is full of examples of fields where researchers can explain phenomena and test the validity of their explanations, without necessarily being able to make accurate forecasts. For example, biologists can explain but not forecast the folding of proteins, and physicists can explain but not forecast the exact motion of a turbulent fluid.”

“Science is a continuous learning process in which the logical implications of competing explanations are tested and a body of evidence is accumulated over time. As Karl Popper showed in the 1930s, there is no ‘final proof’ that a theory is correct, but one can say whether a theory is disproved by data. For example, one cannot say that Einstein’s theory of relativity has been proven, but one can say that its predictions have been well tested, it has yet to be contradicted, and it fits the data better than any alternative explanation proposed thus far. Science thus goes through a process of proposing various explanations, rigorously articulating them in ways that can be tested, eliminating theories that fail the tests, and building on the ones that succeed.”

— Origins of Wealth by Eric D. Beinhocker