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on 11 March 2013
Most of the working scientists I've talked to know about falsification. Fewer have heard of Popper and most of those who have know him solely as Mr Falsification. A very small number have actually read him and there appear to be two reasons - beyond simple ignorance of his existence - why many haven't. First, they think that falsification is the be all and end all of his philosophy. Second, because it *is* a philosophy and philosophy is a synonym for hair splitting, irrelevant word play and deliberate obfuscation. (A third group think that there's no need to read Popper because Kuhn.)

Before anything else, it helps to get these two things straight. There's a lot in the book besides falsification and Popper's writing style is exceptionally clear. It is an example of what philosophy can be at its best: rich with ideas so clearly stated they seem self evident. Popper himself was rightly scathing of some of the nonsense that masqueraded as philosophy in the 20th century and sought to write as clearly as possible. He largely succeeded. To clear up the third point, you'd best read the book.

Popper points out that science is a kind of accelerated evolutionary process. He argues that there need not be any sure process for generating `true' theories because human imagination is fertile enough that we can generate theories of such abundance and ingenuity that as long as we have some process for winnowing out the wrong, we might eventually find the right. The engine of this process is the simple logical observation that although we can never know for certain that a theory is correct, we can know that it is not. Consequently, it is the job of scientists to do their damndest to falsify their theories.

If it was as simple as that, the book would be a lot shorter, but the principle of falsification is one example of a much broader philosophy that is expanded on in this and later books, and is stated most succinctly by the title of two: Conjectures and Refutations (Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge (Routledge Classics);) and his autobiography, Unended Quest (Unended Quest: An Intellectual Autobiography (Routledge Classics)). The idea is that we can never accept that any theory is final, or correct. This would lead to paralysis if it were not for the acute observation that we can treat as provisionally true any hypothesis that has not yet been falsified. Theories might appear to us as castles in the air, but we can inhabit them for as long as it takes to work out how deep the foundations go.

In other parts of the book he uses the same framework to lay out the importance of the scientific literature and reproducibility. He deals with ideas of simplicity, which have implications for anyone who has ever wielded Occam's razor and he delineates the relationship between observation and theory, between science and everything else.

Feynman had little time for philosophy, saying "Philosophy of science is as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds" For a man who said that, he said a good deal that sounded like philosophy of science. Perhaps the most famous aphorism of his is that "Science is belief in the ignorance of experts". That might stand as paraphrase for Popper's book. Much flows from this and Feynman may well have seen it all clearly. But he was a genius, for the rest of us there's Popper.

[Considering his subject matter, Popper is a pleasure to read. However, there are sections of the book that now seem dated and slower going than the rest because they deal with the dismantling of arguments and philosophical approaches that have long since been discarded. That Popper had a good deal to do with the timely death of these ideas is a testament to the force and clarity of his arguments. Other traces of the arguments and misunderstandings of the time can be found in the numerous footnotes and appendices of later versions in which Popper gives amusing vent to his grumpiness at the manifold misunderstandings of his arguments, particularly surrounding falsification.]
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on 17 October 2011
This is probably Popper's most famous work, in which he lays out his philosophy of science, focusing on the question of epistemology.

The book begins in a surprisingly accessible manner. I was expected some very high level philosophy that would be difficult to understand, but the translation is very easy to follow. Where he gets a little more obscure, he brings it back down-to-earth with examples that help to put his argument in context. I would describe the argument that Popper creates as being cumulative; that is, there are lots of references to earlier sections and, in particular, definitions.

For this reason, I would not recommend reading this book over a long period of time. I think it demands to be read quite intensively in as short a time as possible in order to ensure that one may follow it all.

The main thrust of Popper's argument is to say that theories are never verified, they can only be falsified. He dismantles the positivist point of view which led to empiricism and shows empiricism reduces to mere psychologism. From here, he then needs to discuss the degree of falsifiability. He considers a theory to be less likely the more ways it can possibly falsified. From here, what I think he should have done would then be to talk about corroboration and how a theory stands up to attempts to falsify it. Unfortunately, he leaves this to the end and instead goes off on a rather long and tortuous talk about probability.

This quite long section was the downside for me, as his discussion (and in particular, notation) was quite obscurantist, making it difficult to follow and quite oblique. From here, he moves on to talk about quantum mechanics and in particular the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.

This brings me to my last point. If his theory is to be thought of as a scientific theory at all, then it must play by its own rules. That is to say, there must be a set of singular statements from this theory that can, in principle at least, be subject to testing to see if they can be falsified. Such a set of statements is not presented to the reader, so I could only conclude that while Popper's contribution is to be valued and considered, it doesn't constitute a scientific theory. It remains an application of metaphysics.
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on 25 March 2013
"The Logic of Scientific Discovery", first published in German in 1935 by Karl Popper, (1902-1994), opened a new way in the philosophy of science.
He began his epistemological work with "The Two Fundamental Problems of the Theory of Knowledge" (unpublished immediately), and he gave a summary of it in the first edition of his "Logic". The two main problems of Popper's logic are those of induction and of demarcation. Induction is the first one, or the problem of Hume with the first objection of Kant, the second problem is concerning the separation between science and pseudo-science ( i.e. essentially metaphysics, marxism, and psychoanalysis). He realized later that it was the same problem.
So, since Bacon ("Novum Organum") until the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle (Carnap, Schlick, Wittgenstein), the scientific research was for Popper in a wrong way. In their scientific approach the authors of the Vienna Circle did adopt a criterion of meaning (and with verification) in order to divide the two sorts of propositions: scientifical versus metaphysical, to stay in the truth of science. For Popper, the scientific discovery is an unended process of trial and error, in testing hypothesis or theories, with the survival of the best ones through the means of the falsification or the refutation. It is an objective knowledge, but we can never speak of truth, we can only be confident in the theories (or conjectures) which have resisted to the strongest tests. It is a matter of "corroboration", with deductions, until a new theory is about to supersede the previous one (Newton, Einstein...).
Popper developed a new epistemology upon his logic of conjectures and refutations in scientific progress, he called it "critical rationalism", with free discussion between the scientists,(against empiricism and non-critical rationalism), and finally it led him up to an evolutionary theory of knowledge in philosophy of science.
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on 1 August 2013
You get little from skimming this book because you miss all the fine points that contribute to following text. Instead you have to work hard to get it all, and doubly so because Popper did not use the new edition to streamline the text, preferring to add copious long footnotes instead, a few of which are highly relevant so you have to check all of them. I do not recommend that young research scientists waste their time with it; you'd be better off keeping up with the literature of your subject and watching closely those scientists who successfully carry out innovative, original research.

Popper divides science into 'inductive' (many swans are white -> all swans are white (BAD)) and 'deductive' (tentative hypothesis: all swans are white -> there should be no black swans -> look hard for a black swan and retain hypothesis tentatively until you find one (GOOD)). (My simplification of course.) I'm surprised that his binary classification of science has been given so much credence. In my experience, a range of hypotheses exists from highly controversial to well-established. Observations are collected and fitted to these hypotheses as well as can be done, and modifications are made or new hypotheses put forward when necessary for debate and further trials. This seems to fall somewhere between induction and deduction because hypotheses are 'inducted' from observations and become well-established through new observations that can be either supportive or non-falsifying. The main impediment to over-turning poor hypotheses are the important scientists who worked on them most of their lives (see Kuhn) or a lack of research funds, not philosophical mistakes. Very often in applied science, theories must be used to make political or economic decisions, and decision makers are unlikely to be impressed by a new theory simply because it has not been falsified.

Popper's other big thing is 'the problem of demarcation'. This is finding the division between "empirical sciences on the one hand, and mathematics and logic as well as 'metaphysical' systems on the other" (p 11). Nowadays, mathematics and logic are interwoven throughout science and empiricism so why do we need a division? The case is not clear to me.

Much of the book is given over to refutation of previous philosophers, making for dry academic reading. Popper makes liberal use of 'I think', 'I believe' and other opinions which do not enhance a philosophy book. He takes it upon himself to redesign a frequentist theory of probability (pp 133 - 208) for the singular circumstance of a binary sequence. We are left to wonder how he considers this to be generally applicable unless inductively. I have not noticed from my statistical studies that the theory has caught on, and Popper himself suggests in a footnote on p148 that most could be skipped on a first reading. I struggled on but was grateful eventually to take his advice. OK, so probability statements are unfalsifiable (p133) but why then was a boring and poorly referenced rewrite needed? In chapter 9, he then makes an "audacious attempt" (p209) to enquire into the foundations of quantum theory (p210). A case of misplaced overconfidence perhaps? I skipped that chapter. I would have been interested if Popper had struggled to apply his ideas to my field of marine science, where everything must be done underwater.

Chapter 10 brings all together or, perhaps, reveals the house of cards. We get an unquantifiable 'degree of corroboration' for theories that cannot be falsified. Also, various doubtful universal statements such as "the scientific method presupposes the immutability of natural processes" (did he ever think of biology?) or, worse by his own ideas: "this seems to me to exhaust the possibilities of basing the probability of a hypothesis . . ." (translate to: therefore all swans are white!). On p260, we glimpse the ivory tower: "I should decline to join in any dispute about how physicists 'in fact' proceed, since this must remain largely a matter of interpretation." Yet on p22 he says that the objectivity of scientific statements lies in "intersubjective testing" - the "mutual rational control by critical discussion".

Sorry, I am going on a bit. The book was probably a good stirrer in its day and may yet give you some useful philosophical ideas but, as an aid to current research, it's a time waster.
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on 11 April 2015
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on 25 February 2009
Popper's 'falsifiability' may not be the philosophical pinnacle of scientific understanding but is a wonderful guide when attempting to differentiate the `wheat from the chaff' in business or political techno babble.

Anybody, scientist or otherwise, should read this book, it will give you a new outlook on the world.
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on 31 July 2008
With millions of trees being massacred to debate "philosophy of maths and/or science", this is the only worthwhile sacrifice. Popper lays out directly what it means to be a science, how you evaluate a scientific theory and that you can never know you are right only that you are wrong.

Whilst there are other aspects that a proposed theory may have that makes it attractive over other possibilities, if it cannot be falsified, if it cannot be shown to leap through the experimental hoops that previous theories have managed then it is simply not going to get accepted. Falsifiability is sine non qua of any scientific theory, one only has to look at the pain String Theory is starting to go through to see that no matter how "beautiful", how smart it's proponents are - and String Theory has the absolute smartest - and how well-funded it is.... at the end of the day if you cannot make predictions that can be tested you will fail as a science.

Popper lays this out and it is a sad commentary that he is probably less read than people like Latour and Kuhn - just check the number of review for Kuhn vs the maestro. When the revolution comes and the trees take over the world, ALL the other philosophers and "sociologists" of science like Kuhn, Fuller, Latour etc will be the first up against the wall. I can't wait!
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on 29 March 2010
Popper presents a rigorous examination of the subject scientific and how it should be appraised. Although I can't see how this will appeal to anyone who hates numbers and mathematical notation (quite a bit of it in it), it should nevertheless appeal to anyone who is open to the idea of being ready to believe only what is testable as positive definite. And although Popper discusses science I'm thinking about conundrums such as faith and demagoguery. Popper challenges us to stop, think and examine before we commit.
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on 29 December 2014
Mr Popper is surprisingly easy to read. I recommend this book.
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on 28 December 2014
Can't go wrong.But small doses are the best.
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