Can scientific theories be falsified? One scientist says no

September 8, 2020 • 10:15 am

The provocative title of the Scientific American Article below, by physicist Mano Singham, is, I think, deeply misleading.  The idea that science progresses by eliminating incorrect explanations, which is what falsification is all about, seems to me not only a good strategy, but one that’s historically worked very well. To say it’s a myth is not even wrong.

But let’s hear why Singham says that falsification can’t work. Click on the screenshot to read his piece.


Before we get to Singham’s argument, we notice that we can immediately think of scientific theories that have been definitively falsified. One is that the Earth is flat. That has been falsified by any number of observations, and now nobody except loons accepts a flat planet. Alternatively, the Genesis story of creation, once a “scientific” explanation for the origin of life and, especially, humans, has also been falsified, also by any number of observations.  It was replaced by a better theory: evolution, and you can see the process of falsification by reading The Origin, as everyone should.  Darwin not only adduces evidence for evolution from biogeography, embryology, the fossil record, vestigial organs, and so on, but at the same time notes how these observations do not comport with creationism, the main competing hypothesis at the time. The falsification of creationism is why Darwin was so worried that religious people would reject his theory.

For if observations comport with both of two competing theories, this gives us no way to determine which is the better one. Darwin shows in his biogeography chapters, for example, how the distribution of animals and plants on Earth jibes with an evolutionary theory combined with the idea that organisms disperse, but cannot be explained by creationism. (Why would the creator not put native mammals, freshwater fish, and amphibians on oceanic islands?) The book’s falsification of creationism combined with its support of evolution meant that, within about a decade after 1859, nearly all educated people accepted that Biblical creationism had been falsified.

Why, then, given the above, does Singham think that falsification—the classic strategy of scientific advance limned by Karl Popper—is a “myth”?  He gives two reasons (he’s referring to Haldane’s “Precambrian rabbit” as a proposed falsification of evolution):

1.) Falsification is complicated. Singham says this:

But the field known as science studies (comprising the history, philosophy and sociology of science) has shown that falsification cannot work even in principle. This is because an experimental result is not a simple fact obtained directly from nature. Identifying and dating Haldane’s bone involves using many other theories from diverse fields, including physics, chemistry and geology. Similarly, a theoretical prediction is never the product of a single theory but also requires using many other theories. When a “theoretical” prediction disagrees with “experimental” data, what this tells us is that that there is a disagreement between two sets of theories, so we cannot say that any particular theory is falsified.

Fortunately, falsification—or any other philosophy of science—is not necessary for the actual practice of science.

I don’t quite get this. If many lines of evidence (or many scientific fields) converge on a conclusion that contradicts an existing theory (evolution in this case), that doesn’t mean that falsification doesn’t work, just that sometimes it’s not so easy. In fact, in the case of a Precambrian rabbit, scientists wouldn’t take a single observation as overturning a theory supported by so much evidence in favor of a theory—creationism—supported by none. Scientists would work hard to make sure that date wasn’t an anomaly, whether the rabbit somehow got itself insinuated in Precambrian sediments, and so on. Further, we’d like more than one fossil, for a theory as well established as evolution would require a multiplicity of “wrongly placed” fossils to make us question it. This doesn’t mean that falsification is a myth, just that when you use it against a theory that’s very well supported, you have to use it many times.

And sometimes an experimental result is indeed a “simple fact” obtained directly from nature. The idea of a pancake Earth is simply refuted by sending a satellite around the planet and not finding an edge. This case also shows that Singham’s claim that “a theoretical prediction is never the product of any single theory” is wrong as well. A flat earth (some get the idea from the Bible) is a single theory, not depending on “many other theories.”

Another example is Meselson and Stahl‘s lovely and definitive refutation of two models of DNA replication (“conservative” and “dispersive”), confirming the “semiconservative” model with a simple and beautiful experiment involving centrifugation of radioactively labeled DNA as it replicated.  Just because radiochemistry, centrifugation, and biochemistry were involved doesn’t make the experiment any less of a falsification. And there were only two other credible theories being tested, not “many other theories.” Since then, the entire science of molecular genetics has depended on their 1958 result, and it’s held up. If this isn’t an instance of verification of a true theory by falsifying alternatives, I don’t know what is.

Here’s Singham’s second reason why falsification is a “myth”:

2.) Pseudoscientists, cranks, and enthusiasts claim that they have data falsifying “consensus” theories, and this tactic makes falsification a dubious strategy. Again, I don’t quite get this, but here’s what Singham says:

A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his [Einstein’s] generation from which most scientists are suffering. . .

. . . this knowledge equips people to better argue against antiscience forces that use the same strategy over and over again, whether it is about the dangers of tobacco, climate change, vaccinations or evolution. Their goal is to exploit the slivers of doubt and discrepant results that always exist in science in order to challenge the consensus views of scientific experts. They fund and report their own results that go counter to the scientific consensus in this or that narrow area and then argue that they have falsified the consensus. In their book Merchants of Doubt, historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway say that for these groups “[t]he goal was to fight science with science—or at least with the gaps and uncertainties in existing science, and with scientific research that could be used to deflect attention from the main event.”

But this no more refutes the value of falsification than it refutes the value of science itself. For the same zealots and pseudoscientists who use the idea of falsification also pretend to use the methods of science. I don’t think I need say more about this.

Finally, near the end of his article Singham comes close to admitting that yes, falsification works:

Science studies provide supporters of science with better arguments to combat these critics, by showing that the strength of scientific conclusions arises because credible experts use comprehensive bodies of evidence to arrive at consensus judgments about whether a theory should be retained or rejected in favor of a new one. These consensus judgments are what have enabled the astounding levels of success that have revolutionized our lives for the better.

But how do you go about rejecting a consensus theory, like creationism, in favor of a new one? You have to find evidence that comports with the new one and not with the consensus. And that is falsification.

Now it’s possible that there is no competing theory, and you’re just looking for evidence that comports with the only theory you have. But even that is, in some sense, falsification: falsification of the idea that your theory is wrong, even if you don’t have an alternative. If you think benzene has six carbon atoms, then your alternative theory is that benzene doesn’t have six carbon atoms, but more or fewer, and you look for evidence for falsifying one or the other of these theories.

I think Singham intended to support the value of science studies—the history and philosophy of science—at a time when some people denigrate them. Richard Feynman famously said “philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds”.  I don’t agree with him on either count—ornithology is useful to birds, by helping conserve them, and philosophy of science can help us think more clearly about our problems and methods. But sometimes science studies can be impediments by confusing people about the nature of science or making insupportable or useless statements, like there’s no external reality independent of our senses. And one of these impediments is the claim that falsification is a myth.

h/t: Barry

138 thoughts on “Can scientific theories be falsified? One scientist says no

  1. “But how do you go about rejecting a consensus theory, like creationism, in favor of a new one? You have to find evidence that comports with the new one and not with the consensus. And that is falsification.”


  2. East-peasy to show the title is nonsense:

    My theory is definitely scientific, and I’d challenge anyone to show it’s in any way ambiguous. It says:

    When on a calm day you drop Fido (that is one specific non-living solid object, my robot vacuum cleaner) from any reasonable height, no throwing up or down, the speed on the trip increases with the 99th power of the time that has passed. Working this out in any chosen units of distance and time, surely there is one undetermined constant to describe the journey, from which how long it will take to hit the ground (poor Fido!) depends only on that constant.

    Now do two experiments, since only one will allow one to adjust the constant so that it agrees with the ridiculous theory. But two experiments from reasonably different heights will give wildly different constants, both cannot agree, and we have falsified it.

    Even the jokers and idiots who come up with ‘subtle’ versions of flat earth theory will be stymied by this simplistic nonsense theory, but a theory with which as early as Galileo fits what physics theories should be like, however non-general.

  3. I’ve only read Jerry’s extracts, but it seems to me that Singham’s piece is expressing a fairly standard (and correct) critique of what is usually called “naive falsificationism”, and the central criticism is based on what’s called the Duhem-Quine thesis– hypotheses are tested in bundles, and it can be hard to tell which part of your bundle is “false”.

    “Sophisticated falsificationism” was elaborated by the critics of “naive falsificationism”, and there’s an earlier WEIT discussion here at “The discovery of Neptune and falsifiability” (see also this). Popper (the evangelist of falsificationism) anticipated many of the criticisms, and can be regarded as the originator of “sophisticated falsificationism. (It’s not clear to me that any serious person has ever been a “naive falsificationist”.)


    1. Sorry but some hypotheses don’t come in bundles, like the earth being flat.

      And I don’t see Singham’s article (perhaps you should read it; it’s short) saying that ANY form of falsification is okay. As he said, “It’s time we abandoned the notion.” If he means “naive falsification,” then he should have bloody said so.

      Or, simply look at the title: “The idea that a scientific theory can be ‘falsified’ is a myth”. Well, no, it’s not a myth. There are plenty of scientific theories that have been falsified. If Singham meant something different from what he said, he should have made himself clear. I stand by what I said.


      1. In the limit, all observation claims depend on theories about the nature of the observations, and thus all hypotheses are bundled with at least these theories of observation.

        A classic example is the telescopic observations of Galileo: all sorts of theories on optics must be accepted before telescopic observations are accepted. And, indeed, some naive empiricists rejected telescopic observation. One way that telescopic observation was supported was to look at things on the Earth, which could be independently observed by getting close enough to view them without a telescope, and show that the observations aligned. Thus, the optical observation hypotheses could be tested independent of Galileo’s astronomical ideas. With telescopic observation well supported by independent tests, it was hard to deny that what was seen on the moon were physical features.

        The need for independent testability is a key feature of “sophisticated falsificationism”. In the case of the flat Earth theory, observations by spacecraft are very demonstrative, but we think so because the theories that allow us to infer the shape of earth from satellite observations are very well supported indeed, and so we regard observations of the Earth from space as tests of theories about the Earth, and not as tests of theories about optics, instrumentation, the nature of gases and near-vacuums, and, again in the limit, the physiology of perception and cognition.

        Because of independent testability, we are able to separate hypotheses in to different sets of bundles, and thus judge support for something close to individual hypotheses. In testing a single hypothesis, we try to bundle it with only hypotheses that are very well supported, so that we can “isolate” the effect of the hypothesis of interest. We prefer multiple tests, with varying auxiliary hypotheses, so as to arrive at the best supported theories.


        (I again apologize for posting under the avatar of whyevolutionistrue. But even when I erase all Jerry’s login info, and put in my own, I appear as Jerry. This is some quirk of recent changes in WordPress’s commenting software.)

        1. When we circumnavigate the Earth, whether at ground/sea level, a few thousand feet up in an aeroplane or many kilometres up in a satellite we will eventually pass over our starting point without ever changing direction. Surely this falsifies a flat Earth theory without reference to any other theories about e.g. ‘how we infer the shape of the Earth from satellite observations’ ?

          1. How about “..never deviating from a great circle”? Newton’s theory would say the force of the earth’s gravity produces an acceleration which is entirely a change of direction from being a straight line. But your point is well taken.

        2. This is really interesting and something I never gave any thought. I guess even in well-established laws of physics, we have to accept the idea that our perceptions, equipment, and even the nature of our universe (e.g. is it really just a simulation?) are as we believe we have already established.

          This has been a very interesting discussion that has opened my mind to a lot of thinking. Thanks to both of you.

    2. I would add that Imre Lakatos’s Sophisticated Methodological Falsificationism eloquently addresses the issue of “messy” falsificationism.

    3. I think you’re right that we need “sophisticated falsificationism” and not the naive version, but Mano Singham’s piece is a rather poorly argued exposition of that.

    4. What would be the so-called bundle with respect to my moron theory in #2 above?

      It’s the stupid baited title, undoubtedly by some Scientific American employee, which I was criticizing. But here they once again are trying to sell stuff which is utterly unoriginal.

      I’m quite confident that Popper himself has writings which would completely dispose of that article’s main points, however criticizable Popper might be on some aspects of his philosophy of science.

  4. It’s funny that falsifiability came up in my own travels three times in as many days.

    Yes – I agree with PCC(E)’s assessment. Things can be false. Things can be true. Things can become false, or become true. It is a tool to use. There are other tools too. I don’t get the point of the article.

    I expect more from science writers in such a publication – indeed, any writers – who presumably studied the material for at least a solid four years after high school.

  5. This sounds like a merely verbal disagreement. Singham is saying there’s no magic moment when a theory has been definitively refuted once and for all. Jerry is saying that there comes a time when a theory is clearly vastly inferior to an alternative theory at explaining the data available. Both true.

    1. I didn’t take Fido, the robot, up on my roof and drop him from both the peak and the bottom edge. But I have made the “magic moment” as you say, pretty damn clear I think.

  6. I think the best examples to use against this criticism are things that were actually considered “scientific” even after science became well-established. Unlike the theory that the Earth is flat, phrenology is something that was relatively recent, taken serious in at least part of the scientific community, and subsequently falsified.

      1. “Marxism” may be a good example of something else entirely, since most people who use the term in the way that ‘phoffman56’ just did don’t really know what Marxism is. As a political philosophy rather than a scientific hypothesis or theory, Marxism can be better or worse according to the criteria you select for success or failure, but not falsified in any scientific sense. As an interpretive framework, a sophisticated form of materialism, Marxism is better or worse at understanding social and cultural phenomena, but judgments such as true or false are probably not meaningful.

        1. IIRC, my two examples were the central ones in which Popper was interested when he propounded his thesis that one (dubiously: and the only) way to show a theory was not scientific was to see it to be unfalsifiable in principle: the theory could be massaged to be in agreement with any meaningful statement relevant.

          So I perhaps should have written ‘Marxism when construed as scientific’. I don’t think you are saying that between 1850 and 1950 there were no serious intellectuals who made serious assertions claiming that it is a scientific theory. If you are, I’d be needing to get busy finding some, perhaps even in the writings of Marx and/or Engel themselves. I think I could.

          Your “..As a political philosophy..” induces me to mention that ‘Political SCIENCE’ is the title of many departments in many North American universities.

          I oppose communism in almost every way it is seriously advocated as a guide to how a government should act. But I’m pretty far ‘to the left’, as USians would term it, in many ways, including government economic policy to a limited extent.

          1. Popper rightly rejected Marx’s fantasy that ‘laws’ of history could be discovered, and that a ‘science’ of history was embedded in his work. I suspect that we agree that Marx was wrong. One could “falsify” predictions based on those “laws” I suppose, but…..

            I am unaware of any Marxist social scientist or philosopher over the past 80 years who takes that fantasy seriously anyway — though I am happy to be corrected — and instead the most common use of Marx is as an interpretive framework (e.g. did the U.S. go to war in the Middle East to preserve access to oil [Marx] or did the U.S. go to war in the Middle East because Islam is a dangerous ideology [Durkheim]?) I often recommend the classic book “Death without Weeping” to my students as a compelling example of a Marxist interpretive framework. Again, we can judge its success as better or worse, but it would probably not make much sense to subject it to “falsificstion”.

            As for political “science” — presumably the discipline appeals to the broad notion of “science” as the systematic identification and classification of the empirical world, and proposes to treat political beliefs and behaviors as part of that empirical world. This might be part of an emphasis on teaching about rather than teaching to. Not my field!

    1. I suppose phlogiston and vitalism fall into that category, too.

      Though those theories were not so much falsified, as shown to be of no explanatory value.

      1. With 20th century standards, reasonable descriptions of the particles and/or fields which are phlogiston would be demanded, would fail completely, and so I think falsification is pretty clear there.

        An infamous philosopher/scientist whose name deservedly escapes me at the moment–oops, it’s Thomas Kuhn–would likely disagree with me there, so maybe somebody here can surmise what his reply would be. I think Steven Weinberg would agree with me.

        After all, it’s hard to think of any single thing more fundamental about what we now know than the fact that ordinary stuff, including living objects, ‘is’ atoms. That’s what Richard Feynman said when asked what single scientific factual sentence he would tell a completely unschooled intelligence, if restricted to just one.

        Talk about name-dropping!

      2. It was Lavoisier however who falsified the phlogiston theory by showing in an experiment that oxygen caused combustion.

        1. I am not sure that the M&M* experiment falisfied the luminiferous ether theory. That moving objects contract in the direction of motion was propounded by Fitzgerald and Lorentz as a possible explanation for not detecting the ether. The idea of the luminiferous ether merely fell out of favour after Einstein showed that the concept was unnecessary for his Special Theory (which was his).

          Perhaps old theories never die, but their supporters do.

          * Note topical use of ampersand.

          P.S. Can ampersand be written as ampers& ?

          1. “unnecessary”

            What other things can be not false AND unnecessary? What’s keeping anything from being not false and non-existent?

            1. “What other things can be not false AND unnecessary?”

              I wish I was an actual Einstein scholar and not just someone who has read many biographies and popular expositions of his work, but the impression I retain is that he never regarded the luminiferous ether as falsified. Hence he didn’t regard it as a false theory.

              I don’t know if Einstein used the word “unnecessary”, that is me paraphrasing. I think his stance was that the ether could be side-lined, because, whether it existed or not, it did not influence the development of Special Relativity. The Lorentz-Fitzgerald contraction was an ad hoc attempt to keep the classical idea of the ether alive after L&M did their famous experiment. Einstein showed the the contraction was real, and could be derived from his Theory without reference to the existence of the ether.

              1. I cannot understand the importance of luminiferous aether being ranked as “not false”. I don’t think here will ever be a peer reviewed paper reporting the falsification of luminiferous aether – isn’t it just evident?We don’t worry about it’s consequences on physics anymore.

  7. I think all the stuff about philosophy of science just muddies the water when you are actually doing science. I think that is what Richard Feynman was getting at.

    The core of science is just testing your idea against reality. The use of the word “falsifiable” is just a reflection of the fact that it is much easier to demonstrate that your hypothesis is false than to demonstrate that it is true. It’s the old black swan thing: no amount of finding white swans will prove that all swans are white but finding one black swan will prove that not all swans are white.

    Also, just because you have falsified a theory doesn’t render it completely useless (as in Newton’s Theory of Gravity). If I survey a thousand swans and they are all white except for one black one, my theory “all swans are white” is wrong, but it’s still a useful approximation in some circumstances. If my life depended on guessing the colour of a random swan in an opaque box, applying my theory is a reasonable strategy, even though it is technically wrong.

    Newton’s theory of gravity is technically wrong, but it was a good enough approximation to send humans to the Moon and bring them safely back to Earth.

    1. “The use of the word “falsifiable” is just a reflection of the fact that it is much easier to demonstrate that your hypothesis is false than to demonstrate that it is true”

      That is largely true.

      But there is also the point that most scientific theories come with the universal logical quantifier ‘every’, not the existential quantifier ‘some’. So, consider the simplest cases. An extreme example is my precise but ridiculous theory in #1–EVERY time you drop Fido, not just SOME of the times you drop him.

      And so such a theory could strictly speaking NEVER be completely verified (even if I changed the 99 to some much smaller number where it is true in a suitably explained approximate sense). But it can be falsified with a finite number of experiments, namely two in this case, as pointed out.

      I think that is a not-often-enough said difference between verification and falsification.

    2. Over at Andrew Gelman’s blog they had a recent discussion of “day science” and “night science”. The day-science version of your study of swans is something like hypothesizing that all swans are white, and then comparing that hypothesis to data from observing swans. The night-science version is more like asking “I wonder what color swans are” and then looking around to see. Gelman pointed out that these are not alternative ways to doing science, instead they reinforce each other and are done in series (or in cycles). He argued that the two modes lead to slightly different insights into nature, and the insights have slightly different uses. It seems helpful to put hypothesis testing into that larger context to see why Singham’s argument is not useful.

      1. Those two ways seem roughly to correspond, respectively, to inductive and deductive reasoning.

        There’s also a place for abductive reasoning, which I suppose, to extend Gelman’s day/night metaphor, we might call “crepuscular science.” 🙂

    3. Yes. Personally I now consider philosophy as superstition analogous to theology. (I have given up on the ethical normative use.)

      Both have pretty much the same historical arc. A few thousands of years of history with not one empirical, useful advance (because you need science and technology for that). And we should remember Sagan’s points that Plato’s mysticism killed the fledgling mercantile empiricism of the Hellenistic world in a century, same as religion killed it in the Arabic world a millennium after in much the same time.

          1. I did not watch that lesson. Does he talk about direct empirical evidence or, like in his article above, only about abduction and Bayesian probability?

            1. I only skimmed it. If I remember correctly, it came toward the end and he didn’t really say much specific about many-worlds as the lesson was more about what falsification meant rather than interpretations of quantum mechanics. He did say that many others think that many-worlds isn’t falsifiable and that he didn’t agree. He may have hinted why but, if he did, he didn’t elaborate much.

              1. Keep in mind that the multiverse is not the same thing as the many worlds. The former is a cosmological theory while the latter is an interpretation of quantum mechanics

              2. Yes, but the way he thinks that the two can be falsified seems very different:

                Multiverse: very indirect way (the “evidence” for the multiverse is abduction).

                Many-worlds: direct falsification, by providing data that conflict with the Shrodinger equation

              3. The evidence for a current cosmology as multiverse is not philosophic (abduction). Weinberg predicted what it would mean in the 80s, and it has now passed that test. It is the simplest model on the short list of alternatives that the latest cosmological observational synthesis – the BOSS IV 20 year galaxy survey – made. (It is an example of two hypotheses that arguably passed tests, re the article topic.)

                “Nevertheless, the observed consistency with flat ΛCDM at the higher precision of this work points increasingly towards a pure cosmological constant solution, for example, as would be produced by a vacuum energy finetuned to have a small value. This fine-tuning represents a theoretical difficulty without any agreed-upon resolution and one that may not be resolvable through fundamental physics considerations alone (Weinberg 1989; Brax & Valageas 2019). This difficulty has been substantially sharpened by the observations presented here.”

                [ ]

                I now call it (the selection bias result or “anthropic universe” inflationary multiverse of less constrained LCDM model) the Weinberg universe. I got a few hours free recently, and found that the observed flat space makes a non-GR approximation of its thermodynamics – consistent with a check of its GR FLRW equation of state – really simple.

  8. If Mano Singham is a physicist, then he should be well versed in the scientific method and should know that theories have been falsified.

    His article would make me immediately sceptical of any scientific effort that he produces.

    If he is trying to say that any one outlier who produces a new theory based on nonsense could not be falsified, then his premise is wrong, which is a big part of why some theories are easy to falsify.

    1. “If Mano Singham is a physicist”

      Apparently he is:

      “Mano Singham is a retired professor of theoretical nuclear physics, and the former director of UCITE, Case Western Reserve University’s center for innovation in education. Mano spent nearly 10 years studying and implementing methods to foster the highest levels of educational performance from students attending the University.”

      As usual the last sentence is followed by not a single example, but hardly unique there.

      I liked the fact that our recent discussion about active learning did get down to brass tacks, with specific examples.

      A place very close to me has a not entirely impressive (IMHO) record of living up to its “Center for Teaching Excellence” name. In my more sarcastic moods, I misinterpret that use of ‘nounifying’ adjectives by noting how happy I am that we have no “Center for Teaching Mediocrity”. Perhaps they meant excellent teaching.

    2. Well, in my view he is less suspicious. “Falsification” is a philosophic model, after all. Most papers says passed testing, which is what it is.

    1. What if many distinct theories to give meaning to the word “potentially” were not falsifiable? I think at least culling pseudoscience, by some brief and uncontroversial philosophy, is in some cases quite difficult.

    2. I don’t think it is really that simple. What if we just don’t yet know how to falsify a theory? When a theory is under development, all its implications typically haven’t been identified. When the implications have been worked out, they may even disagree with existing experimental data or result in something that can be verified.

      Since science is a dynamic pursuit, our current inability to falsify a theory shouldn’t cause us to immediately abandon it. It is always just an objection that must be considered, much as all science is tentative.

  9. One is reminded also of Eddington’s observation of the star images bent out of place by the sun’s gravity during the total solar eclipse of 1919: on the crucial photographic plate, if Einstein’s general theory of relatively was correct, the images would have been in one place. More importantly, if the theory was wrong, they would have been in a precisely different place, and the theory would have been instantly falsified by a single photograph. The rest is history.

  10. Oh, my. How far has Scientific American fallen as to publish such nonsense. It really burns my bacon to see such drivel. They want to publish something, so they make up some crap that contradicts a widely held idea so they can write a catchy headline. The contents really doesn’t matter. It could have been crafted by a couple of school kids. They’ve come up with the catchy title first and then jot down a few idle thoughts under it. Good grief. Rename that rag, the Irrational American.

    1. I read the article, it looks fine. The author didn’t contradict testing (falsification), he said the description makes myth-story, as all historical science descriptions (see the article).

  11. Pfffht. This goes into the “why was this even written?” file.
    What I especially don’t like, above all else, is that creationists and other ilk of that sort might find succor in this article. They can claim that their “theories” can’t be proven wrong.

  12. Singham’s main point seems to be to explain how producing a single result that doesn’t fit a currently accepted scientific theory should not be considered proper falsification. He also supports science studies as they help explain why this is the case. They’ve been under fire lately and he thinks they play a vital role.

    IMHO, it’s just a poorly argued point. It’s certain true that falsification is not simple. A single out-of-line observation would virtually never knock off an accepted theory by itself. It is just ridiculous to even think it would. Singham seems to be trying to turn this observation into a grander philosophical statement. He fails.

  13. Yeah, I’m not clear on where exactly the author is coming from in this piece (maybe there’s some backstory, like tons of criticism coming from a group with a particular view, that he’s addressing here,) but for the most part this seems like a non-issue. Perhaps what he was getting at was the idea that everyone seems to go out and pick and choose their own data these days to tell whatever story they want. This does seem like a bit of a problem in the information age, but I think it speaks to how difficult it is to get a complete picture on any topic. If someone comes up with compelling evidence that runs contrary to the consensus on a topic, presumably this indicates that there are indeed some caveats to be taken into consideration. For example, I believe there are some indications that smokers are actually less likely to be hospitalized for Covid, because nicotine does something to disrupt the spread of the virus. So, tobacco is a bad thing for health outcomes in most cases, but Covid might be a rare exception. Or hypothetically, it’s also certainly possible that there are, say, people with a specific genetic mutation in whom smoking does not increase the risk of lung cancer (that example I made up, just trying to think of an example that would appear contradictory at first glance, if you happened to study that group.)

    In the total picture of things, all those pieces fit, it’s just unclear how when we have more fragmented information. But again, unless you’re going with some kind of post-modern, “all is narrative / framing” idea about reality, this doesn’t seem like that much of a problem philosophically. It’s basically just saying that a complete picture is very hard to create in a short period of time, given the limits of doing research in terms of time, funding, logistics, etc.

      1. Maybe I’m making the association fallacy, but I presume that if you’re affiliated with Myers and his brand of Lysenkoism, it could color your view of the scientific method.

        1. Maybe you are – you started out with poisoning the well after all. The article was about science, not social justice warriors.

  14. “I think Singham intended to support the value of science studies…”

    Looks that way, and I’d argue (at the risk of going off topic) that he’s barking up the wrong tree.

    The history of science is also a compendium of current pseudo-science. There lies its value for anyone wishing to teach or communicate about science.

    When modern day vitalists or people claiming to know how “the soul interacts with the brain” attack scientists for dismissing their ideas without researching them, one of the most effective ways of responding is to show how scientists did indeed spend research these ideas for many centuries. The process by which such ideas were abandoned is in itself interesting (I find, as it broadens the imagination and ability to think ‘inside’ various worldviews), and it also demonstrates that far from being narrow-minded or ‘afraid’, scientists fully expected to find a life force, or find the ventricle or structure in the brain that houses the spirit.

    What’s more, people who read history will notice that the arguments that 17th century biologists were levelling at Descartes’ idea that animals are ‘soulless’ machines are exactly the same arguments that spiritually oriented academics and New Age teachers currently level at biology. In other words, they’re 350 out of date and missed the radical turns and twists that biology took in the ensuing decades and centuries.

    What also becomes clearer from studying science history is that biologists didn’t just discard “spiritual” theories, but also an enormous heap of materialistic ones as well — all for the same reason: they didn’t lead anywhere.

    (And also, spiritual people of a dualistic mindset might also discover that they’re obsession with “how does life or consciousness arise from inanimate matter” have in fact unwittingly taken on Descartes’ theory of matter, with its billiard ball atoms and contact dynamics. From there, it’s only a small step to say “It can’t all just be random chance. There must be a higher organising principle.”)

  15. How do we falsify the various “interpretations” of Quantum Mechanics?

    Currently they all yield exactly the same predictions.

    Some of them could be falsified in principle, but we don’t currently have the sufficient instrumentation (and it is not clear if and when that will become available).

    Some of them seem to be impossible to falsify by definition. For example, the many worlds interpretation assumes that after the split the various new worlds cannot in principle communicate with each other.

    1. If all the interpretations explain existing experimental data but say different things, then they are all vulnerable to falsification by new experimental data. In other words, every interpretation must model more than is actually known by the data. In the extreme, an advanced alien race could tell us, “This is the only proper interpretation and here’s some data that show why we believe it.”

      1. Some “interpretations“ are just different ontological interpretations of the same mathematical theory, so if you show that the Shrodinger equation gives invalid results you have falsified them all. But if you cannot falsify the Shrodinger equation you still have the question about which ontology is the correct one (e.g. psi-epistemic vs psi-ontic).

        There are still other “interpretations” that are actually modifications of the standard wave function, like the pilot wave theory or the objective collapse theories, and as such can be subject to experimental falsification, but we do not have the tools yet to be able to do that.

        1. Those different ontological interpretations aren’t equivalent, right? While the math may come out the same way, each implies a different model of how the universe is put together. In that sense, the interpretations say more than the data actually tell us. Are we agreeing?

          1. Yes, and that “more” might not be subject to empirical falsification: it could just be a metaphysical difference

              1. Sure, if you claim that many-worlds actually exist but there is no empirical way to confirm it, that is metaphysics (from met-physics: what is beyond physics).

                Also if you believe that math tells you about what exists (I think that Carroll claims that the many-worlds just “come out” of the Shrodinger equation), that is also metaphysics: it is about your philosophical beliefs regarding math and what it represents (philosophy of math)

              2. I’d be very interested if Carroll says and, on the topic only says, the equivalent of “..the many-worlds just “come out” of the Shrodinger equation..” and that it’s somehow connected to the philosophy of mathematics discipline (without, or with, the ‘c’ in Erwin’s name)

                In any case, I’d strongly recommend looking very carefully at David Wallace’s 2012 Oxford book “The Emergent Multiverse”. He is a strong advocate for the Everett interpretation. His book is a compendium of 20 years or so of his work almost exclusively on the question. This is not some Discover Magazine article. It’s 530 pages of not large print, closely argued from scratch, but demanding. For example, the thorniest objection–how can there be probability when everything that can happen does happen?–is dealt with in Part II, pages 113 to 245, entitled “Probability in a Branching Universe”. I can say for sure that the argumentation for the existence of other worlds, so to speak, from the Schrodinger equation, its solutions, and the mathematical and observational set up, has nothing at all to do with any topic customarily considered to be part of the philosophy of mathematics.

                Now possibly Carroll’s argumentation for the same does have; though I doubt it, so would need to see much more specific references.

                I took a disappointed look at the two suggestions referring to Sean Carroll’s writing, but it seems to have not much to do with what we’re exactly talking about in this discussion concerning quantum interpretations and falsifiability:

                The PDF is a paper “Beyond Falsifiability: Normal Science in a Multiverse” . It has entirely to do with the ‘other’ multiverse in cosmology related to inflation, not to interpretations of QM.

                The mag article is a few paragraphs indicating that he does have a well-considered sympathy for work suggesting there is a real connection between the Everett and the cosmological ideas of the multiverse. That sympathy I was unaware of before.

                But neither (disappointingly to me) seems to have what I’d thought in another overly long reply nearby. And nothing about the philosophy of mathematics of course.

              3. Here is an article where Carroll discusses the many-worlds interpretation:

                Near the end of the article he says “Those other worlds are not added on to the theory. They come out automatically if you believe in quantum mechanics”.

                Earlier in the article he talks about equation 2) and he says “The plus sign here is crucial. This is not a state representing one alternative or the other, as in the textbook view; it’s a superposition of both possibilities“.

                Here we have a math formula that is the same whether an Everettian looks at it or a psi-epistemic enthusiast. Still one interprets the “+” in a completely different way than the other. Doesn’t that bring up the philosophical issue of what kind of relationship exists between math and reality?

              4. “Doesn’t that bring up the philosophical issue of what kind of relationship exists between math and reality?”

                That’s perhaps the most fascinating question of all. Its flip side is the relationship between the human mind and truth. Penrose thinks that the human mind has special access to the truth, at least mathematical truth. I don’t believe that but I can see the problem. Is mathematics a model of reality or reality an approximation to mathematical truth?

                Near the end of the article he says “Those other worlds are not added on to the theory. They come out automatically if you believe in quantum mechanics”.

                Yes, I remember hearing him say that. It almost sounds like he’s saying that the universe splits into two when the wave function collapses but he isn’t responsible for what happens beyond that. It strikes me as a convenient compartmentalization. Of course, I’m not a physicist so what do I know?

              5. Replying to Ugo, 2 or 3 up from here.

                Thanks for the more relevant reference to Carroll. It’s from 2014, but seems still his view, judging by his much more recent book “Something Deeply Hidden” (2019).

                “Doesn’t that bring up the philosophical issue of what kind of relationship exists between math and reality?”

                Yes, but not really the philosophy of mathematics.

                And the issue is simply buried by adopting Tegmark’s 4th type of multiverse consisting of all mathematical structures, one of which IS the physical universe (not–MODELS the physical universe). On the side, that makes the actual existence of the abstract, namely that particular mathematical structure, to be something that all but lunatics would agree to. If one does, there’s no reason to doubt all mathematical systems exist. Nothing else does. It is hardly surprising that our present human crude version of mathematics should be highly relevant to the study of one particular mathematical structure, namely again the physical universe.

                I’m using a lot of words here still poorly defined, but that is hardly criticizable by anyone emphasizing some hobbyhorses of philosophy e.g. ontic versus epistemic.

                That a psi-epistemist looks at the Schrodinger equation, and sees nothing but a cookbook recipe for making a computation, makes it hardly surprising, and I don’t think a deep philosophical problem, that he or she differs seriously from someone who believes the activity of a scientist is to understand the physical world, something which actually exists. Perhaps she or he should first examine why they either
                1/ don’t accept the existence of Einstein’s space-time, or more likely
                2/ do, so general relativity does provide true existence assertions, but why not the existence of an actual space of quantum states.
                I’m inclined to agree with David Deutsch (note the ‘c’) that it is best to ignore semi-lunatics and get on with studying the consequences of Everett’s many-worlds.

                Parroting him: if, and very likely when, a quantum computer factors a number requiring 2 to the power 500 separate routines, it’ll be interesting to observe how much squirming the (non-existence of Everett’s many-worlds)-people will do in trying to explain that, in view of the rather puny number of elementary particles in the visible universe compared to that power of 2 (much bigger than any number with 150 decimal digits).

              6. The idea that the physical universe IS the mathematical structure itself is attractive but, if true, it doesn’t feel like it’s the whole answer. Regardless, our ability to understand the universe is biased in ways that will be difficult to eliminate. Evolution has given us a brain that wants to see things in terms of objects and forces acting on them. If the universe was in fact something completely different, it would be difficult for us to think about it. It is like being asked to imagine an intelligent species completely unlike any on earth and then imagine what it is like to be a member of that species, all with no more information than that. Where would we even start?

      1. I think that what Carroll says is that falsifying the MW is equivalent to falsifying the Shrodinger equation (if you have a different understanding please provide a reference to what he said).

        I don’t buy that: the Shrodinger equation is just a piece of math (shut up and calculate) and the existence of the many worlds does not “come out of it”, it requires an ontological interpretation.

    2. “Interpretations” are apparently all pure theory (expressed mathematically, or are they?). If so, there is presumably a purely theoretical possibility, of at least arguing logically and computing, which shows that two such interpretations would give different predictions for some pie-in-the-sky experiment, one which seems even potentially (a word elsewhere used here) never to be doable. One which required an entire galaxy to make a particle accelerator is a common example. This would seem to show at least that one of the two is false, even if not deciding which.

      Or even arguing theoretically with no experiment involved, that no 1-to-1 correspondence could exist between the things in one versus in the other interpretation, a correspondence showing them somehow equivalent as physical theories. Now I’m talking ‘through my hat’ where I have no idea how to define half the words I’m using.

      Actually, is it not obvious that a theory asserting something exists (in this case many alternative worlds) could not be equivalent to a theory which doesn’t? But tell me what you mean by ‘exists’, looking back one paragraph. And there certainly have been many famous physicists who say it makes no difference to progress in quantum physics which interpretation one believes, if any at all, even after Everett in the ’50s.

      But at least something like the above would show not both could be true, if not deciding which one.

      Perhaps that is part of what Sean Carroll has discussed in that study suggestion someone here has given elsewhere. I plan to try to understand his work, but don’t feel optimistic that I will. I have often touted here the Oxford book by David Wallace, but do not even understand what are the differences between these two strong Everett supporters. A third one, David Deutsch, would even claim that none of the non-Everett ones are logically coherent, if I understand correctly. He says to just get on with figuring out the consequences of many-worlds, and do not be diverted by fussing with these illogical alternatives.

      In any case, the Carroll claim seemed to be that his ideas could potentially disqualify Everett, would falsify it. And not just say, as above, that not both Everett and Copenhagen could be true, or maybe the latter is meaningless when you sharpen your logic.

      I’m way over the limit; better shut up.

    3. You don’t, since they try to embed quantum physics in something larger and so far hasn’t succeeded.

      The working (relativistic) theory of quantum physics is quantum field theory. It says a lot more interesting – and real – stuff than “interpretations” (except possibly many worlds, which is an interesting overreach, I’ll give it that).

  16. This strikes me as nothing more than a debate as to what it means to “prove” something. Of course, I can’t prove to an absolute certainty that the ghost of Charles Darwin isn’t sitting on my desk looking over my shoulder as I type this. It’s the same argument that theists make when they say you can’t “prove” that there isn’t a god. Well, of course, it depends on what you mean by “prove.” In the case of god, I would argue that it has been proved to the exact same extent as we have “proved” that there are no leprechauns — meaning that their nonexistence has been sufficiently proved to the extent that rational people no longer seriously debate whether leprechauns exist.

  17. Singham has not persuaded me that falsification is a myth.

    Falsification is a useful tool. I think Singham would do better to quantitatively examine how falsification has been applied to science theories throughout history. I think he will find it’s applicable to all science, to some level.

    Temporal aspects could be very interesting. For example Newton would not falsify the ether because no one knew what electromagnetism was. And maybe someone will falsify dark energy, but to the limit of our knowledge and observations dark energy is the best explanation for the phenomena we observe. Until then, it’s white swans 🙂

    1. Falsification can be a problem in certain areas of science where theories are built on certain mathematical approaches, like in string theory or quantum gravity or the holographic principle to explain black holes. All these concepts are scientific. Another example is the question why certain galaxies seem to rotate too fast, according to Newton’s theory of gravity. So there is a new idea called modified Newtonian dynamics, and a competing theory of the presence of dark matter in these galaxies. But falsifying one of these two options seems to be quite difficult at this moment. But the two options are “science” for the time being.

      1. “And maybe someone will falsify dark energy, but to the limit of our knowledge and observations dark energy is the best explanation for the phenomena we observe.”

        Dark energy has been observed – tested for its existence – many times by independent means. If you still hope that it is somehow wrong, that is now a problematic bet. See my quote from the latest cosmological observational synthesis – the BOSS IV 20 year galaxy survey – in another comment: “Nevertheless, the observed consistency with flat ΛCDM at the higher precision of this work points increasingly towards a pure cosmological constant solution, for example, as would be produced by a vacuum energy [“dark energy”] finetuned to have a small value.”

        “Another example is the question why certain galaxies seem to rotate too fast, according to Newton’s theory of gravity. So there is a new idea called modified Newtonian dynamics, and a competing theory of the presence of dark matter in these galaxies. But falsifying one of these two options seems to be quite difficult at this moment. But the two options are “science” for the time being.”

        Except they aren’t, dark matter is mainstream, “modified gravity” is fringe. The latter is also myopic since dark matter explains structure formation on all scales from cosmic filaments – where gas and so galaxies cluster – down to dwarf galaxies, and at all times from the cosmic background spectra – where it is immediately identifiable in the peaks – until today. If dark matter didn’t exist, the universe wouldn’t be habitable since it would have a few stars at best.

        But more than being a myopic ad hoc for rotation curves in spiral galaxies – something that current cosmology has done better since 2015 when models added supernova (and later other) gas feedback [ ] – the multimessenger observation of the first binary neutron star merger killed most of the field in one fell swoop.

        “New observations of extreme astrophysical systems have “brutally and pitilessly murdered” attempts to replace Einstein’s general theory of relativity”

        “Many researchers knew that the merger would be a big deal, but a lot of them simply “hadn’t understood their theories were on the brink of demise,” he later wrote in an email. In Saclay, he read them the last rites. “That conference was like a funeral where we were breaking the news to some attendees.”

        The neutron-star collision was just the beginning. New data in the months since that discovery have made life increasingly difficult for the proponents of many of the modified-gravity theories that remain.”

        [ ]

        1. The article on the demise of modified gravity goes on to note “slippery survivors” – among them those ideas that doesn’t actually predict anything – but it is frankly obvious it is a dying field. The other side of the coin is that cosmology has moved on from cosmological scales to scales of stars since 2018.

          “Philip Hopkins, a theoretical astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, likes to prank his colleagues. An expert in simulating the formation of galaxies, Hopkins sometimes begins his talks by projecting images of his creations next to photos of real galaxies and defying his audience to tell them apart. “We can even trick astronomers,” says Hopkins, a leader of FIRE, the Feedback in Realistic Environments simulation. “Of course, it’s not a guarantee that the models are accurate, but it’s sort of a gut check that you’re on the right track.”

          For decades, scientists have tried to simulate how the trillions of galaxies in the observable universe arose from clouds of gas after the big bang. But in the past few years, thanks to faster computers and better algorithms, the simulations have begun to produce results that accurately capture both the details of individual galaxies and their overall distribution of masses and shapes. “The whole thing has reached this little golden age where progress is coming faster and faster, …””

          “Perhaps the simulations’ single biggest lesson so far is not that scientists need to revise their overarching theory of cosmology, but rather that problems lurk in their understanding of astrophysics at smaller scales. In particular, their theory of star formation comes up wanting, Springel says.”

          [ ]

          1. Thanks, I had forgotten that. Not in the sense that I don’t think the field is dying, but as the only [?] example of something a bit less ad hoc. My comment there was:

            “It *was* easier when so called alternatives were not – not able or even trying to jump the hoops, and just dropped in the round archive – but kudos if it works as hoped. My guess is that it fails on structure formation since LCDM has been better than classic MOND in the latter’s home turf of spiral galaxies for years now [ same astrobites article I already linked to in another comment ]:

            “By adopting an astrophysical mass-dependent DM halo density profile and looking at galaxies velocity function and the Tully-Fisher relation, the authors highlighted how we can distinguish if DM cores form via astrophysical process or is a consequence of alternative dark matter models. Comparisons of their model with the NFW profile and alternative dark matters seem to suggest their model has the upper hand.”

            Looking at even smaller scales, we have recently seen that DM form clumps.”

      2. On another tack I wanted to note that “string theory or quantum gravity or the holographic principle to explain black holes” is a mix between mathematical tools used in science and – in at least two cases – physical theories.

        Holography as physics is fringe, and quantum gravity is usually a misnomer. Linearized Einstein equations propose a mundane quantum gravity field theory which seems valid in tests [ ]. But like quantum mechanics “interpretations” some scientists wants to embed it in a larger idea – so far unsuccessfully.

        However, string theory as physics is in my opinion rejected in test today. Natural energy scale – just above standard particle energy scales – supersymmetry has failed to produce WIMP dark matter in LHC (which has sufficient energy) and in ACME (yes, really – it is an electron sphericity experiment, that can show new interactions at those scales). And it has failed to produce much lower mass so called axions (supposed to explain why we have matter in the universe – something neutrinos may suffice to do) in similarly tested scales.

  18. But the field known as science studies (comprising the history, philosophy and sociology of science) has shown that falsification cannot work even in principle.

    This sounds to me very much like the Postmodernist Swerve – because individuals interpret their own Subjective Truth there can be no Objective Truth.

    Perhaps we should offer Singham ‘other ways of falsification’?

  19. Of course falsification is insufficient to describe science, which I think Singham means when he says falsification is a “conventionalized myth-story”. It is a the attempt of a philosopher to straitjacket a naive logical model onto the method of statistical testing, which is what scientists use.

    But there is more to science, such a competition between valid hypotheses (i.e. such that are not yet rejected in tests). I don’t agree with Singham when he tacitly assumes “the history, philosophy and sociology of science” as complementing the science of science, which has barely being started. Statistical testing, Noether’s discovery of how fundamental laws work, Wilson’s discovery how quantum field theory is effective, and the recent work on testing the success rate of science is what I hope will congeal in such a science.

    Meanwhile, the term “falsification” with its pseudoscientific roots is annoying – testing is what scientists use – and I give Singham kudos for pointing that out.

    1. In my interpretation, Singham is just saying that one scientist producing data that is inconsistent with a theory doesn’t cause science to simply abandon that theory. He’s claiming, with no real proof, that the general public believes this myth. Perhaps they do. His motivation is to counter the climate change deniers who sometimes point to one scientific paper and say, “See? Climate science is false!” A milder version says, “See? Climate scientists don’t agree. Climate change is not a sure thing. I prefer to listen to my climate scientists.”

      1. I’m not totally clear on what Singham is saying, but this was my impression as well. It seems to me he is framing truth in an all or nothing way when this is not necessary. For example, when he says:

        “So, when anti-vaxxers or anti-evolutionists or climate change deniers point to this or that result to argue that they have falsified the scientific consensus, they are making a meaningless statement. What they need to do is produce a preponderance of evidence in support of their case, and they have not done so.”

        To me it sounds as if he’s saying “If you have a theory that all swans are white, and someone finds a black swan, the people who believe all swans are white should be believed because they have a preponderance of evidence.”

        I would think the logical conclusion is that if someone finds a black swan you first check to make sure it is not a mistake, and, if it’s not, it becomes a caveat to the first theory, it’s not the case that the overwhelming majority of evidence is for all swans being white so we go with that.

        Maybe there’s some larger philosophical point about ‘truth’ in there that I am missing though, i.e., he’s saying the assumption that you ‘know’ you have seen a white or black swan in the first place is provisional so we should just go with statistics? Intuitively that doesn’t make sense to me but giving the benefit of the doubt in thinking maybe there’s a point I’m missing here.

        1. I think your swans analogy is perhaps poorly chosen. Here’s how I would change it. If the currently accepted theory is that most swans are white, finding a black swan doesn’t invalidate it. The climate change theory can’t be overthrown by one bad statistic or even by discovering that one part of the theory is not quite right. If the currently accepted model for the disappearance of the ice covering Greenland is shown to be wrong, it doesn’t mean that man-made climate change must be false. I think this is his point.

          1. I went with the swans because it was what came up when I Googled falsification theory, ha ha. And I agree that what you’re describing is how people generally look at it, but I’m trying to figure out what Singham’s worry is here. To me it sounds as if he is speaking in these sorts of absolutes, but perhaps I’m not understanding him fully.

            1. I went with the swans because it was what came up when I Googled falsification theory, ha ha. And I agree that what you’re describing is how people generally look at it, but I’m trying to figure out what Singham’s worry is here. To me it sounds as if he is speaking in these sorts of absolutes, but perhaps I’m not understanding him fully.

          2. Also, I think the difference in analogies here – whether it’s “all swans are white” vs. “some swans are white” comes down to whether or not the critics Singham is referencing are actually able to show data that conflicts with the consensus on global warming. If it genuinely conflicts with an accepted proposed theory, it’s akin to “all swans are white”, if the theory already accounts for it, it’s akin to “hey, we already said most swans are white, not all of them, so this doesn’t actually conflict with our theory.” I feel like I need more backstory to know what he’s referencing here. Either way, though, this seems like fairly common sense stuff, so not sure why he thinks we need to have a reckoning with the idea of falsification in order to explain such a concept to people.

  20. Lots of ink has been spent writing about Popper v Kuhn, & Popper on Darwin.
    I am not convinced that a flat earth was ever a scientific theory. Even in the Mediaeval period that was not a view held by geographers. James Hannam in God’s Philosophers ( 2009), Says it seems Francis Bacon originated that myth, claiming philosophers were put on trial for asserting the earth was a sphere. The round Mappa Mundi was , he says, only intended to show a quarter of the world. A better example in the geocentric universe…

    1. To me, a scientific theory is not merely something held to be true by people who identify themselves as scientists, when communicating as scientists.

      It is any (likely very lengthy) proposition which is meaningful and about the material universe. So the theory that the earth is flat would qualify.

      We simply are disagreeing about definitions of words. But your remark about medieval history is certainly interesting.

    2. I think the oldest (Thales?) model was that Marmaduk slew Tiamat, and fashioned the world out of her body. The sky was basically the inside of the dragon, which was partially filled up with water, on which the earth floated like a chip of bark.

      Tehom in Hebrew is deep or abyss and a cognate of Tiamat. In the Genesis narrative, G– separates the waters (e.g. the globe is introduced, and a portion of the waters is excluded creating the sky by separating the waters). Then you get the dirt floating on the ocean, the earth, then you get the flora, then sun and moon, then the fauna and humans.

      So you wouldn’t sail off the end of the world if you kept sailing, you would come to the heavenly spheres, and you can reach across like the image on the cover of the Discoverers.

      1. In the Biblical flood, of course, G__ pulls the cork out of Tiamat/Tehom’s mouth, and all the waters in the heavens rush in and fill up the globe (“the fountains of the Great Deep burst apart and the floodgates of heaven broke open”)

  21. “The idea that science progresses by eliminating incorrect explanations, which is what falsification is all about…”

    Strictly speaking, Popper proposed that falsifiability is the issue: a hypothesis (not a theory) is scientific if it is falsifiable. As a philosopher, Popper sometimes tried to illustrate his philosophical points with examples from history, but Popper was always writing about what science should do, not what science does do or has done. When confronted with objections such as Singham’s, Popper devoted a series of essays compiled as Conjectures and Refutations to trying to somehow reconcile his philosophical demarcation of science from metaphysics using falsifiability from the fact that science and scientists rarely work in the way that Popper argued they should. It was an embarrassment.

    1. I’m not embarrassed, nor is David Deutsch, so I have good company. Maybe you could explain more clearly why we should be.

      1. I did not state that you should be embarrassed. I wrote that “It [Conjectures and Refutations] was an embarrassment.”

        And that was an embarrassment for several reasons, including the weak effort to shore up the principle of falsification as an actual strategy by introducing ‘corroboration’, and the emergence of several more compelling accounts of science at about the same time — for example Kuhn published “Structure…” in 1962, Lakatos compiled Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge in 1965, and by then Popper was viewed as essentially replaced, and a flood of critical works on ‘falsification’ emerged. I was an undergraduate in 1968 and remember very well the attitudes toward Popper at that time: a combination of dismissive and feeling sorry for the old guy.

        1. That’s more ad hominem than any specific rebuttal of a specific Popper claim. But I’m sure you could do that credibly except for a forum like this having space limitations.

          I can remember going to a lecture by Popper at Guelph University, probably around 1978 (certainly after 1975). He seemed surprisingly not like someone for which we’d “..feel.. sorry for the old guy”.

          Attitudes of students, and even many of the profs, in Philosophy Departments in North America are hardly worth noting these days. But perhaps it wasn’t philosophy or North America. Given the weakness for Derrida and company, maybe that slam could be expanded to entire Arts Faculties. I’m now an ‘ad hominemer’, aren’t I?

          1. Thanks for your reply. Yes, there is a somewhat ad hominem quality to my observation about the reactions to Popper by the mid/late 1960s, but the point that both philosophers and historians of science had moved on is still a valid one, I think. The literature was being filled with critiques of falisificationism at that time, and I don’t need to try to summarize all of them, except to mention, as you know, that Popper’s focus on how science ought to work was always at odds with how science does work. I have taught a freshman course on the culture of science in which I assign the neat little collection by Collins and Pinch called “The Golem: What Everyone Should Know About Science,” which has a number of good examples of scientific theories that should have been “falsified” when hypotheses based on those theories were not upheld in testing, but which either persisted for years because no good alternative theory was available, or because secondary explanations were introduced to rescue a good theory that could not be tested with adequate precision.

            Anyway, these are entertaining issue to revisit more than 50 years after I first started to be interested in them, but I am glad that Prof. Singham is catching up.

            1. I’d like to note that David Deutsch of Oxford, right now and since about 1980 or earlier doing highly regarded fundamental physics research (for example he is the person who first showed (theoretically) the existence of the (universal) quantum computer back in the 1980s) is a very strong supporter of Popper’s ideas. The dedication of his first of two well known popular science books, “The Fabric of Reality”:

              “Dedicated to the memory of Karl Popper, Hugh Everett and Alan Turing, and to Richard Dawkins. This book takes their ideas seriously.”

              I am far more inclined myself to take seriously the ideas of serious scientists who do not dismiss all philosophy out of hand, such as Deutsch and Steven Weinberg, rather than most professors of philosophy.

              1. As an anthropologist my impression is that the ‘natives’ in any society are often blind to, or at least unaware of the deeper nature and workings of their culture, and this seems to apply to scientists as much as the Yanomamo Indians of Brazil. Nonetheless, expert knowledge of a field, especially science, is a good basis for starting to examine (“interrogate” in the current jargon) the ideologies of science, which is why I have always been more impressed by the historians of science who are also trained scientists, while philosophers of science are least impressive at all.

                It’s not at all surprising that many professional scientists approve of Popper, since the ideology of falsification appeals to a naive understanding of how science works, and there is a kind of intuitive attractiveness to the notion that science should pursue hypotheses that are falsifiable. My concern, as I suggested in the first paragraph, is that, when studying a foreign language we don’t ask the ordinary person on the street for technical details of syntactic structure — it takes a linguist to even understand the question, let alone be able to answer it credibly. Although his name is a bad word in many scientific circles, Latour’s work has been very insightful in revealing how the naive understanding of science held by scientists themselves can be opened up by an observer. You are probably familiar with the classic book “Laboratory Life” by Wolgar and Latour — a great example.

                In the end, “falsification” was an important response to logical positivism, and by turning a regime of science ideology on its head, had a kind of ironic appeal. But the shift, with Kuhn in 1963, to the study of how science is actually done seems to have led not just to the critique of Popper, but to a closer attention by philosophers themselves to history — I heard a talk by Imre Lakatos in, what, 1970?, that sounded like sociology to me, a naive undergraduate, but was more compelling than any of the philosopher I had read.

                Anyway, thanks for the exchange, which has been fun.

  22. Any scientific or pseudo-scientific idea with a significant political constituency (say the blank slate hypothesis) cannot be falsified, because of the political consequences. The battle would have to be fought and won by political means (and by a group with different political interests). I don’t think “creationism” is a scientific idea, but its unfalsifiable for the same reason.

    On the other hand, no one is following Ptolemy’s astronomy, the ether has returned to the Void, polygenetic origins of humans are only of historical interest, etc., etc. If scientific theories are not falsifiable, then why have so many of them been falsified?

    [Ancient astrology is still employed, even though ancient astronomy is not, because astrology has a use, and that use is not scientific.]

  23. Wittgenstein made a comment on falsifiability once, that it was an important test. He compared it to a person in a totalitarian country who is stopped by the police and asked for identification. It is not the case that everyone stopped by the police would possess identification, but the fact that a person did not possess ID would mark them as special.

    The question of falsifiability is extremely important in science and philosophy of science, without serving as some absolute demarcation of science from non-science. For example, the statement “aspects of the physical universe are capable of quantitative measurement” is not falsifiable. Is it then metaphysics, or non-science, or science? It is clear that there are unfalsifiable conceptual assumptions that scientists share, probably many that haven’t even been verbalized, and the line is not very clear what is in or what is out. [Before we get into “faith”, its important to point out that the belief in the existence of an integer greater than 34282393249 or that the universe can be quantitatively measured is different from dudes walking on water in ancient Israel.]

    1. I like your 2nd paragraph. But I’ll try to give some sort of answer to your question:

      ” “…aspects of the physical universe are capable of quantitative measurement” is not falsifiable. Is it then metaphysics, or non-science, or science?”

      Surely distance and length of time are the two most fundamental aspects of that capability. Perhaps time is the more subtle. But it seems to me to be a perfectly clear empirical observation.

      That is, for certain periodic phenomena, e.g. the swinging of all sorts of pendula and the going from one year to the next, humans have come to realize empirically that, for example, for a fixed pendulum no matter where placed or when, it will swing the same number of times from noon on June 21 one year to the same event a year later. This has been known for at least 5000 years (“event” because I don’t want to sound logically circular here–use a gnomon for the dates and times).

      Same thing essentially for any two pendula.

      More or less same thing for days in a year. for many other periodic things. (Not for the occurrence of volcanos or hurricanes unfortunately!)

      So humans come to have the scientific theory that there is such a thing as time. Similarly distance. They could be but likely won’t ever be falsified.

      To be technical, you have not just an ordering there, sooner/later, shorter/longer, but also stronger, you have the mathematical structure of congruence: measurable amounts of time and of distance with certain obvious, but I’m saying not obviously but subtly, existence. But they seem not subtle to people who live with watches and rulers etc from the cradle. I know I’ve said nothing original here, but it needs saying occasionally.

      I also do realize that in some future theories time and space may very well be emergent objects, and also that of course there is air resistance etc. which requires thought concerning approximations.

      So the answer to your question is ‘science’.

      And that’s the same even in the unlikely event that humans 200 years from now basically falsify it. For me, non-science is more like ‘non-falsifiable in principle’, however much this idea of Popper needs to be discussed in a more subtle way than he ever did. There do seem a few here who mix up the notion of ‘non-falsifiable in principle’ with just ‘falsified’. Once and if falsified, a scientific theory like my little one in #2 above does not become non-science; it becomes simply false. It’s astrology, Freudian psychology, etc. which are non-science.

      As for your first paragraph, the Wittgenstein more-or-less quote completely mystifies me, as do almost all others from him. Perhaps that’s why he is voted by a bunch of philosophers as the most important philosopher of the 20th century. To me that says more about them than about him. But maybe I’m unfair.

      What I do know is that he completely misunderstood Godel’s incompleteness theorem when he pontificated about it in writing sometime between 1935 and 1950. Many people who do understand that have said as much. And the post hoc, post Wittgenstein’s death excuses written about that are never convincing to me. So I’m zeroing in on one thing to come to general negative conclusions about Ludwig non-Beethoven, and maybe I’m just ignorant of some genuine intellectual advances made by the man.

      1. I’m not prepared to defend Wittgenstein’s reputation, except that he inspired the logical positivist movement (which was the foundational movement of analytic philosophy) with his first book, and inspired the ordinary language movement with his lectures and posthumous publications, that is to say, a huge chunk of 20th Century philosophical ruminations.

        How one judges or rates a philosopher is itself a philosophical question, so its hard to get a non-question-begging answer except by influence and citations, but even that might mean he was just over-rated because he filled a niche for an intense, obsessive, reactionary communist gay man pontificating on the meaning of life.

        Second, there are a lot of stupid interpreters of his work, so be careful to distinguish between him and his interpreters. A lot of his later writing is basically a set of riddles.

        Third, I think he nailed the question of falsifiability, whatever else he did or didn’t do.

        Last, it is possible that you could be a good philosopher and a crappy mathematician, especially when the publication in which he goofs was published after his death.

        My attraction to Wittgenstein was primarily driven by the fact that his writings are both incredibly simple and incredibly hard to comprehend, its like doing a really difficult puzzle. I think that is how many people get sucked in, as well his cache with the beret set.

      2. The statement:

        “there are aspects of the physical universe capable of quantitative measurements” is not really falsifiable. In a universe lacking that capacity, you wouldn’t have quantitative measurements, and it wouldn’t even come up.

        You could also say “We live in a universe where quantitative measurement is possible.” Obviously, any quantitative measurement made would verify the proposition, but no quantitative measurement could falsify it.

        If science = falsifiability, I don’t think the statement is science, while at the same time, I can’t imagine that every scientist wouldn’t assert that it is true (except maybe a positivist, who might say it is meaningless). In terms of imagination, we can certainly imagine a world where elements were so unstable and sensitive that standardization was basically impossible, or even a world were everything was in a gaseous state all the time, but we don’t actually live in such a world.

        I’m perfectly fine with someone saying it is science, or not science, or “foundations of science”, because it is one of those arbitrary (but necessary) exercises in line-drawing.

        We see this a bit with mathematics, is it mathematics or theoretical physics? If you do this stuff and you want the chair of the physics department, it probably matters if your colleagues view your work as theoretical physics over pure mathematics.

        1. But if you are a lousy mathematician, a jousy physicist, a lousy biologist, etc,,,, there’s not much left for you to philosophize about in a worthwhile way.

          So although I disagree with him on most things, someone like, say Tim Maudlin, is worth at least reading seriously.

  24. Good point Dr. Coyne.

    Your objections to the Scientific American article make sense to me.

    Still, in my view, there are several problems with Popper’s falsification. For example, we can’t define “unfalsifiable” in a useful, stable, and objective way, is often mixed up and equivocated with “unfalsified.” Ironically, creationists make this equivocation when they call evolution unfalsifiable.

    A better understanding might be that good science is in part characterized by the diligent effort to falsify, rather than defend, one’s own hypotheses, and quickly recognize when these hypotheses have been falsified. The word “falsify” still appears, but in reference to the scientist’s work, not the intrinsic features of the hypothesis.

    It is silly to argue that creationism is unfalsifiable, and therefore false or bad science; that logic is not sound or fairly applied. In fact, we do think that young earth creationism is solidly falsified. A far more legitimate objection is that creationist scientists are not intent on falsifying their own hypotheses, nor do they recognize when their hypotheses have been falsified.

  25. “It is silly to argue that creationism is unfalsifiable, and therefore false or bad science; that logic is not sound or fairly applied.”

    Can you expand on that? If an attempted falsification results in a clear verdict that either creationism of some precise form has been falsified or else fundamental physics has been, would you doubt that it is actually creationism that has been? An example of part of that might involve radioactive dating.

    Anyway, let me not put words into your mouth. But the quote above begs for further explanation. It just seems silly to me to say “creationism is unfalsifiable”. And so you’d never get into the logical side of that with anyone with half a brain.

    “..creationists make this equivocation when they call evolution unfalsifiable”.

    I suppose some do.
    But in any event, saying that quote on its own is already saying a falsehood. There are zillions of experiments/discoveries which, if they stood up (and they won’t I’m sure) would falsify evolution, discoveries such as finding a rabbit skeleton within rocks which are 4.2 billion years old.

    1. To expand a bit further…

      I certainly do think that Young Earth Creationism, such as that put forward by AIG, has been definitively falsified in science. So how then could it be unfalsifiable? It does seem silly, to me at least, to say that AIG is wrong because their position is unfalsifiable, when in fact their position has been falsified.

      It seems far more sensible to explain how they are in conflict with the evidence.

      Of course, they may respond by modifying the details of their model. If those modifications are ad hoc, e.g. by multiplying unattested miracles, that is precisely where to challenge them, on the ad hoc modifications they are making to avoid falsification.

      Regarding evolution, I do not think it is easy to falsify because, in general terms, it is consistent with what we find in nature. It is so consistent in fact that it may be practically impossible to falsify even if the counter-factual examples you’ve discussed did pop up.

      Moving past the general terms, looking at specific models of evolution in particular situations, we actually do falsify models all the time. We usually respond by modifying the hypothesis, and that’s appropriate if our modifications are not ad hoc. It goes without saying evolutionary scientists are not invoking ad hoc miracles to explain away difficult data.

      What I’ve just described here (judging the modification by their merit) matches how Popper came to see falsification in the end, which is arguably a large retraction. We are no longer talking about falsification, but whether or not modifications are ad hoc (

      As I stated before, I think the better way to understand falsification does not categorize hypotheses as falsifiable and unfalsifiable. Rather it expects scientists to diligently work to falsify their preferred hypotheses. Scientists don’t always follow this ideal, but the best of us do.

    2. I’ll add only a small tongue-in-cheek comment here, recalling that Grover Maxwell once noted that a perfectly useful — indeed, essential — hypothesis

      “All humans are mortal”

      was not falsifiable. To falsify it, you’d have to find an immortal human, and since you could never establish immortality (that person could die the day after you posit that they are immortal), you can never falsify the hypothesis.

      I suspect that Maxwell was being humorous….

      1. That quote is a good starting point for discussing scientific statements for which a single falsifying instance can only take place over an infinite interval of time (and other similar).

        And also to discuss the possibility of theoretical falsifications of statements such as the negation of ‘either all humans are mortal or else fundamental biology is incorrect’. As you well know, we do understand why Grover was correct, even if maybe he didn’t, nor did and do the disciples of Jesus Christ, in this case asserting the negation of Grover.

        Not being the Maxwell of electromagnetic theory, was he the one with the silver hammer?

        1. For all I know, he was the CEO of the coffee company!

          More seriously, your observation parallels my own from back in the early 1970s, when I was assigned to read his essay, which I believe appeared in the Schlipp volumes on Popper. It highlighted the difference between hypotheses and theories, which Popper tended to elide — the Maxwell statement is not a hypothesis that is generated by any [current] theory in biology (or in science in general), and is therefore not one that scientists would find interesting. But by then I was already in an anthropology doctoral program, and was finding most philosophy pretty irrelevant!

    1. 2, 4, 8,
      who we preshate?


      How about: dimensions of the only non-trivial real division algebras, namely complexes, quaternions, octonians (formerly & AKA the Cayley numbers; associativity, that a(bc) is the same as (ab)c is not required).


      Only numbers for which half of it, say ‘n’, has the property that 2**n is an exact divisor of 3**n-1;
      2 | 3-1 ; 4 | 9-1 ; 16 | 81-1 , but never again, nor does 8 divide 27-1 exactly.


      Each is 1 more than the dimensions of the only sphere surfaces which have a multiplication which is, though not necessarily commutative nor associative, at least decent enough to have a ‘1’ and reciprocals (inverses) for each member. (The sphere, I called “sphere surface” of a given dimension is the set of vectors a fixed positive distance away from any given vector, its centre, in the standard space of one extra dimension).


      Probably I’m missing something which is the expected answer. But my very own Ph. D. supervisor, Frank Adams, had a lot to do with what’s above.

      Except the first, the others above are really the ‘same’ answer in a sense. There’s also a version about what’s called the ‘Hairy Ball Theorem’, where the usual sphere, 2-dimensional like a soccer ball, can’t be combed without a crown, but, in 1 less than those dimensions, it can be maximally combed without a crown.

      1. I take it you know the answer – by embarrassing the asker!

        Anywho, all that stuff you wrote is one big reason I love puzzles!

    2. I didn’t notice the video earlier, just launched into my nerdy answer to the WRONG question, namely: What interesting fact holds only for the single given sequence.

      The video is in any case profoundly unimpressive IMHO! I can expand on why and bore the hell out of any reader even more, but mercifully won’t.

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