The Logic of Scientific Discovery (Routledge Classics) Paperback – 21 Feb 2002
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'One of the most important documents of the twentieth century.' – Peter Medawar, New Scientist
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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.
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.]
Written back in the '30's when the field was in its infancy, Popper's text sets out and argues the basic tenets of the 'scientific method'. Popper's 'falsifiability' criterion is still the single strongest feature distinguishing the scientific from the unscientific, and that, for me, is what the book is about.
Yes, it begins with falsification. Yes, later authors showed that tested falsifiable hypothesis does not account - by a long way - for the adoption of new theories in science. And yes, the increasingly uncertain nature of experiment and the subjective elements of interpretation make 'falsification' a far more slippery concept than a naive reading of Popper implies. But the great contribution here is the recognition that 'scientific method' can prove the particular, and while that cannot prove the general, it can eliminate the false. On top of that, Popper's historical case studies are well written and thought-provoking, which makes a heavy topic a fair read.
No book on this topic can be the only book to have; different authors cast different lights on the field. But this is one of the pivots, on which the arguments of many a later author turned. A very nearly must-have.
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