Popper vs Conventionalism

Somebody called Noah Smith posted a tweet claiming that falsification is impossible cuz you can change your theory to get around a falsification. He cites a blog post, which never quotes Popper and gives no account of his ideas. Not surprisingly, both the post and the tweet quoting it are wrong on this issue.

Popper addressed this criticism in his first book The Logic of Scientific Discovery: some quotes are given below.

Chapter 1 Section 6

A third objection may seem more serious. It might be said that even if the asymmetry is admitted, it is still impossible, for various reasons, that any theoretical system should ever be conclusively falsified. For it is always possible to find some way of evading falsification, for example by introducing ad hoc an auxiliary hypothesis, or by changing ad hoc a definition. It is even possible without logical inconsistency to adopt the position of simply refusing to acknowledge any falsifying experience whatsoever. Admittedly, scientists do not usually proceed in this way, but logically such procedure is possible; and this fact, it might be claimed, makes the logical value of my proposed criterion of demarcation dubious, to say the least.
I must admit the justice of this criticism; but I need not therefore withdraw my proposal to adopt falsifiability as a criterion of demarcation. For I am going to propose (in sections 20 f.) that the empirical method shall be characterized as a method that excludes precisely those ways of evading falsification which, as my imaginary critic rightly insists, are logically possible. According to my proposal, what characterizes the empirical method is its manner of exposing to falsification, in every conceivable way, the system to be tested. Its aim is not to save the lives of untenable systems but, on the contrary, to select the one which is by comparison the fittest, by exposing them all to the fiercest struggle for survival.

Chapter 4 Section 19

Thus my conflict with the conventionalists is not one that can be ultimately settled merely by a detached theoretical discussion. And yet it is possible I think to extract from the conventionalist mode of thought certain interesting arguments against my criterion of demarcation; for instance the following. I admit, a conventionalist might say, that the theoretical systems of the natural sciences are not verifiable, but I assert that they are not falsifiable either. For there is always the possibility of ‘. . . attaining, for any chosen axiomatic system, what is called its “correspondence with reality”’;3 and this can be done in a number of ways (some of which have been suggested above). Thus we may introduce ad hoc hypotheses. Or we may modify the so-called ‘ostensive definitions’ (or the ‘explicit definitions’ which may replace them as shown in section 17). Or we may adopt a sceptical attitude as to the reliability of the experimenter whose observations, which threaten our system, we may exclude from science on the ground that they are insufficiently supported, unscientific, or not objective, or even on the ground that the experimenter was a liar. (This is the sort of attitude which the physicist may sometimes quite rightly adopt towards alleged occult phenomena.) In the last resort we can always cast doubt on the acumen of the theoretician (for example if he does not believe, as does Dingler, that the theory of electricity will one day be derived from Newton’s theory of gravitation).

Thus, according to the conventionalist view, it is not possible to divide systems of theories into falsifiable and non-falsifiable ones; or rather, such a distinction will be ambiguous. As a consequence, our criterion of falsifiability must turn out to be useless as a criterion of demarcation.

Chapter 4, Section 20:

These objections of an imaginary conventionalist seem to me incontestable, just like the conventionalist philosophy itself. I admit that my criterion of falsifiability does not lead to an unambiguous classification. Indeed, it is impossible to decide, by analysing its logical form, whether a system of statements is a conventional system of irrefutable implicit definitions, or whether it is a system which is empirical in my sense; that is, a refutable system. Yet this only shows that my criterion of demarcation cannot be applied immediately to a system of statements—a fact I have already pointed out in sections 9 and 11. The question whether a given system should as such be regarded as a conventionalist or an empirical one is therefore misconceived. Only with reference to the methods applied to a theoretical system is it at all possible to ask whether we are dealing with a conventionalist or an empirical theory. The only way to avoid conventionalism is by taking a decision: the decision not to apply its methods. We decide that if our system is threatened we will never save it by any kind of conventionalist stratagem. Thus we shall guard against exploiting the ever open possibility just mentioned of ‘. . . attaining for any chosen . . . system what is called its “correspondence with reality” ’.

In order to formulate methodological rules which prevent the adoption of conventionalist stratagems, we should have to acquaint ourselves with the various forms these stratagems may take, so as to meet each with the appropriate anti-conventionalist counter-move. Moreover we should agree that, whenever we find that a system has been rescued by a conventionalist stratagem, we shall test it afresh, and reject it, as circumstances may require.

About conjecturesandrefutations
My name is Alan Forrester. I am interested in science and philosophy: especially David Deutsch, Ayn Rand, Karl Popper and William Godwin.

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