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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


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


“Cloning is great. If God made the original, then making copies should be fine.”*…



Every new step in the direction of simplification – toward monoculture, say, ore genetically identical plants – leads to unimaginable new complexities…”
― Michael Pollan

In any case,

Animal cloning has been around for nearly 20 years, but has mostly been done for the sake of research. Now, a new commercial venture in Tianjin, China, plans to clone 100,000 beef cattle a year for meat production beginning in the first half of 2016.

The enterprise, made up of several academic and commercial organizations with financial support from the Chinese government, has the ultimate goal of ramping up production to a million cow embryos a year…

Read on at “China Planning Huge Facility to Clone Cows, Dogs & Racehorses.”

* Douglas Coupland


As we ruminate on reproduction, we might send biological birthday greetings to Erasmus Darwin; he was born on this date in 1731.  Erasmus was an accomplished doctor (he declined an offer to be personal physician to Charles III), but is better remembered as a key thinker in the “Midlands Enlightenment”– a founder of the Lunar Society of Birmingham and author of (among other works) Zoonomia, or, The Laws of Organic Life, which contained one of the first formal theories of evolution… one that foreshadowed the theories of Erasmus’ reader– and grandson– Charles… all of which may soon seem quaint.


Written by LW

December 12, 2015 at 1:01 am

“All things are subject to decay and when fate summons, monarchs must obey”*…


from Startape PhotoGraff, Flickr


from 95wombat, Flickr


From the collection of over 11,000 photos in the Flickr pool “Old Factories and Industrial Decay Around the World.”

* John Dryden


As we celebrate the beauty in the ephemeral, we might recall that it was on this date in 1997 that Ian Wilmut, Keith 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




Written by LW

February 22, 2015 at 1:01 am

“Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated…”*


Capt. Kirk facing a Horta, a silicon-based life-form (in “Devil in the Dark” from “Star Trek: The Original Series”


Silicon-based (and other alternate) forms of life are a staple of speculative fiction.  But are they as far-fetched as they might seem?  In Smithsonian‘s Daily Planet blog, astrobiologist Dirk Schulze-Makuch suggests not

It would be extremely “earth-centric” to presume that the biochemistry on our planet is the only way life can operate. But just how different can it be? One extreme example are the “Horta,” the silicon-based life portrayed in Star Trek. Could we expect organisms like that on a terrestrial, meaning Earth-type, planet? Most likely not, because the biochemistry of life is intrinsically related to its environment. On Earth, silicon and oxygen are the main building blocks of Earth’s crust and mantle. Most rocks, particularly volcanic and igneous rocks, are built from silicate minerals, which are based on a silicon and oxygen framework. Any free silicon would be bound in these rocks, which are inert at moderate temperatures. Only at very high temperatures does the framework become more plastic and reactive, which led Gerald Feinberg and Robert Shapiro to suggest the possible existence of lavobes and magmobes that could live in molten silicate rocks

Adam and 3-CPO, from “Darths and Droids”


One can read the full story at “Is Silicon-Based Life Possible?

And one can muse on a resonant issue: if we earth-bound humans tend to be pretty precious about our definition of life, we are even more sensitive– indeed, often down-right chauvinistic– in our understandings of consciousnesssentience and who/what can or can’t enjoy them.

* Confucius


As we study up for the Turing Test, we might send animated birthday greetings to Hans Adolf Eduard Driesch; he was born on this date in 1867.  The father of experimental embryology and the first person to clone an animal, Driesch was also the creator of the philosophy of entelechy—  and thus the last the last great spokesman for vitalism.  Following in the footsteps of Epicurus, Galen, and Pasteur, Driesch argued that life cannot be explained as physical or chemical phenomena.



Written by LW

October 28, 2013 at 1:01 am

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