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“In so far as a scientific statement speaks about reality, it must be falsifiable: and in so far as it is not falsifiable, it does not speak about reality.”*…

Kirsten Thompson, the lead scientist on the Arctic Sunrise, takes water samples for eDNA sampling near Paulet Island at the entrance to the Weddell Sea. Photo by A Trayler-Smith/Greenpeace/Panos

If you ask philosophically minded researchers – in the Anglophone world at least – why it is that science works, they will almost always point to the philosopher Karl Popper (1902-94) for vindication. Science, they explain, doesn’t presume to provide the final answer to any question, but contents itself with trying to disprove things. Science, so the Popperians claim, is an implacable machine for destroying falsehoods.

Popper spent his youth in Vienna, among the liberal intelligentsia. His father was a lawyer and bibliophile, and an intimate of Sigmund Freud’s sister Rosa Graf. Popper’s early vocations draw him to music, cabinet making and educational philosophy, but he earned his doctorate in psychology from the University of Vienna in 1928. Realising that an academic post abroad offered escape from an increasingly antisemitic Austria (Popper’s grandparents were all Jewish, though he himself had been baptised into Lutheranism), he scrambled to write his first book. This was published as Logik der Forschung (1935), or The Logic of Scientific Discovery, and in it he put forward his method of falsification. The process of science, wrote Popper, was to conjecture a hypothesis and then attempt to falsify it. You must set up an experiment to try to prove your hypothesis wrong. If it is disproved, you must renounce it. Herein, said Popper, lies the great distinction between science and pseudoscience: the latter will try to protect itself from disproof by massaging its theory. But in science it is all or nothing, do or die.

Popper warned scientists that, while experimental testing might get you nearer and nearer to the truth of your hypothesis via corroboration, you cannot and must not ever proclaim yourself correct. The logic of induction means that you’ll never collect the infinite mass of evidence necessary to be certain in all possible cases, so it’s better to consider the body of scientific knowledge not so much true as not-yet-disproved, or provisionally true. With his book in hand, Popper obtained a university position in New Zealand. From afar, he watched the fall of Austria to Nazism, and commenced work on a more political book, The Open Society and its Enemies (1945). Shortly after the war, he moved to the UK, where he remained for the rest of his life.

For all its appealing simplicity, falsification was quickly demolished by philosophers, who showed that it was an untenable way of looking at science. In any real experimental set-up, they pointed out, it’s impossible to isolate a single hypothetical element for disproof. Yet for decades, Popperianism has nonetheless remained popular among scientists themselves, in spite of its potentially harmful side-effects. Why should this be?

The notion that science is all about falsification has done incalculable damage not just to science but to human wellbeing. It has normalised distrust as the default condition for knowledge-making, while setting an unreachable and unrealistic standard for the scientific enterprise. Climate sceptics demand precise predictions of an impossible kind, yet seize upon a single anomalous piece of data to claim to have disproved the entire edifice of combined research; anti-vaxxers exploit the impossibility of any ultimate proof of safety to fuel their destructive activism. In this sense, Popperianism has a great deal to answer for.

When the constructive becomes “deconstructive”– Charlotte Sleigh (@KentCHOTS) explains how a powerful cadre of scientists and economists sold Karl Popper’s “falsification” idea to the world… and why they have much to answer for: “The abuses of Popper.”

See also: “Why ‘Trusting the Science’ Is Complicated.”

* Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery

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As we re-engage with epistemology, we might recall that it was on this date in 1997 that Ian WilmutKeith Campbell, and their colleagues at the Roslin Institute (part of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland) announced that they had successfully cloned a sheep, Dolly, who had been born on July 5, 1996. Dolly lived her entire life at the Institute, where (bred with a Welsh mountain ram) she gave birth to six lambs. She died in February, 2003.

 Dolly’s taxidermied remains

 source

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