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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

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“The seen is the changing, the unseen is the unchanging”*…

Pharmacist’s Spatula, by William Toogood Ltd, English

We start 2021 with three big milestones for the Science Museum Group Collection.

100,000 incredible objects now have a photograph online, the online collection regularly receives 100,000 views each month and we’ve just recorded 3,000,000 visitors since launching the website in late 2016.

Each time you visit our online collection you can see more than ever before. Almost a quarter of the remarkable objects we care for (24.9% or 105,715 objects to be exact) have a photograph online, with hundreds of new photographs added each month as we digitise our vast collection.

You can explore photographs of artworks, tools and video games, or items from astronomy, firefighting and printing to give a few examples from the collection…

n the past we’ve released digital tools to help you explore the collection, including our Random Object Generator, Museum in a Tab (a Google Chrome extension) and What the machine saw (a machine learning experiment). You can even add our objects to the popular game Animal Crossing.

However, it can be difficult to spot recently photographed objects in the collection. So today we have published a new tool to help you explore these new items.

Never Been Seen shows objects from the Science Museum Group Collection that have never been seen online before. Each time you refresh this webpage an object with zero views is shown, making you the very first person to see it…

The spatula at the top of this post is no longer in that category, as your correspondent has seen (and now shared) it. But there’s so much more! Explore as yet unnoticed items in the collection of the Science Museum (London): “Never Been Seen.”

* Plato

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As we uncover the unobserved, we might spare a thought for a man who saw much that had hitherto been unseen: Frank Plumpton Ramsey, a philosopher, mathematician, and economist who made major contributions to all three fields before his death (at the age of 26) on this date in 1930.

For more on Ramsey and his thought, see “One of the Great Intellects of His Time,” “The Man Who Thought Too Fast,” and Ramsey’s entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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Written by LW

January 19, 2021 at 1:01 am

“The criminal is the creative artist; the detective only the critic”*…

Arthur Conan Doyle’s estate has issued proceedings, complaining that Enola Holmes,  a recently released film about Sherlock Holmes’ sister, portrays the great detective as too emotional.

Sherlock Holmes was famously suspicious of emotions. “‘[L]ove is an emotional thing,’ he icily observed, ‘and whatever is emotional is opposed to that true cold reason which I place above all things’.”  “I am a brain’, he told Watson. ‘The rest of me is a mere appendix’.”

I can imagine that many professional scientists and philosophers would feel affronted if they were accused of being emotional animals. Holmes is a model for them. He’s rigorous, empirical, and relies on induction.

But here’s the thing. He’s not actually very good. Mere brains might be good at anticipating the behaviour of mere brains, but they’re not good for much else. In particular Holmes is not a patch on his rival, Chesterton’s Father Brown, a Roman Catholic priest. Gramsci writes that Brown “totally defeats Sherlock Holmes, makes him look like a pretentious little boy, shows up his narrowness and pettiness.Brown is faster, more efficient, and, for the criminal, deadlier. This is because, not despite, his use of his emotions.

In science it is rather more important to find out the right answer than to identify an answer that will fit one’s currently ruling paradigm. In moral philosophy it is rather more important to find the morally correct course than to identify one that doesn’t outrage the zeitgeist. Father Brown can help. Sherlock Holmes can’t.

Lessons for Philosophers and Scientists from Sherlock Holmes and Father Brown

For an example, see “Peirce on Abduction.”

[Image above: source]

* G.K. Chesterton, The Innocence of Father Brown

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As we get in touch with our feelings, we might spare a thought for Humphrey DeForest Bogart; he died on this date in 1957. An actor whose career began in the theater, his motion picture roles made him a cultural icon; in 1999, the American Film Institute selected Bogart as the greatest male star of classic American cinema. While there can certainly be legitimate debate as to his most memorable role, his turns as a detective (Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon; Phillip Marlowe in The Big Sleep) are certainly among the contenders.

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“Context is everything”*…

Figure and ground… do all grounds make bad stories, and only figures make good ones?

“What’s the story?”

No question is asked more often by editors in newsrooms than that one. And for good reason: that’s what news is about: The Story.

Or, in the parlance of the moment, The Narrative. (Trend.)

I was just 22 when I wrote my first stories as a journalist, reporting for a daily newspaper in New Jersey. It was there that I first learned that all stories are built around three elements:

1. Character

2. Problem

3. Movement toward resolution

Subtract one or more of those and all you’ll have is an item, or an incident. Not a story. Which won’t run. So let’s unpack those elements a bit.

The character can be a person, a group, a team, a cause—anything with a noun. Mainly the character needs to be worth caring about in some way. You can love the character, hate it (or him, or her or whatever). Mainly you have to care about the character enough to be interested.

The problem can be of any kind at all, so long as it causes conflict involving the character. All that matters is that the conflict keeps going, toward the possibility of resolution. If the conflict ends, the story is over. For example, if you’re at a sports event, and your team is up (or down) by forty points with five minutes left, the character you now care about is your own ass, and your problem is getting it out of the parking lot. If that struggle turns out to be interesting, it might be a story you tell later at a bar.)

Movement toward resolution is nothing more than that. Bear in mind that many stories never arrive at a conclusion. In fact, that may be part of the story itself. Soap operas work that way…

… we do have two big fails for journalism here:

1. Its appetite for stories proves a weakness when it’s fed by a genius at hogging the stage.

2. It avoids reporting what doesn’t fit the story format. This includes most of reality.

My favorite priest says “some truths are so deep only stories can tell them,” and I’m sure this is true. But stories by themselves are also inadequate ways to present essential facts people need to know, because by design they exclude what doesn’t fit “the narrative,” which is the modern way to talk about story—and to spin journalists. (My hairs of suspicion stand on end every time I hear the word “narrative.”)

So here’s the paradox: We need to know more than stories can tell, yet stories are pretty much all human beings are interested in. Character, problem and movement give shape and purpose to every human life. We can’t correct for it.

That’s why my topic here—a deep and abiding flaw (also a feature) of both journalism and human nature—is one most journalists won’t touch. The flawed nature of The Story itself is not a story. Same goes for “earned media coverage.” Both are features rather than bugs, because they cause much of journalism’s success, and debugging them has proven impossible…

Consider The Holocaust (six million dead) vs. the story of Ann Frank. The Rwandan genocide vs. Hotel Rwanda. China’s one child policy (untold millions of full-term fetuses aborted or born babies killed or left beside the road to die) vs. One Child Nation. The Rohingya conflict (more than 10,000 civilians dead, 128,000 internally displaced, 950,000+ chased elsewhere) vs. approximately nobody. Heard of Holodomor? How about any of the millions who died during Mao’s revolution in China?

Without a story, statistics are cemeteries of facts.

Sure, academics and obsessives of other kinds (including journalists) can exhume those facts. But Big-J journalism will always be preoccupied with stories. Including, unavoidably, the genius for generating them who currently occupies the White House…

We traffic in stories because people can’t help being interested in them. But stories also fail at telling truths that don’t fit a tale. Presupposition is part of the problem; but only part. More fundamentally it is the privileging of strong (pure) emotion over messy reality, of “narrative impact” over understanding. Doc Searls (@dsearls) on “Where Journalism Fails,” eminently worth reading in full.

For some practical advice, follow Searls’ link to Jay Rosen’s suggestions.

And for a painful case-in-point, consider the wise Patrick Wyman‘s thoughts on the horrors of January 6:

We have a strong tendency to understand events unfolding as a story, a narrative, with all the structural beats we expect from a story: beginning, rising action, climax, resolution. Even as we’re consciously aware that there will be a tomorrow, a next week, and a next year, it’s hard to avoid treating the most recent big thing – in this case, the riot on the Capitol – as either the end or beginning of one particular story.

Narrative is how we process information and give the world some shape and meaning. But it’s deeply misleading as an attempt to understand the complex interactions between past and present that define a political system…

Do read it in full here.

[Searls’ piece via friend MS]

* In this phrasing and others closely linked, many, many authors/speakers, including Mary Beard, Margaret Atwood, Mary Catherine Bateson, and A.D. Garrett

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As we only connect, we might send circumscribed birthday greetings to Edmund Burke; he was born on this date in Dublin on this date in 1729.  An author, orator, political theorist, and philosopher, he moved to England and served for many years in the House of Commons of Great Britain as a member of the Whig party.  He’s probably best remembered for his advocacy of the American and his opposition to the French revolutions.  While Burke was held up as a beacon by both conservatives and liberals in the 19th century, the 20th century generally viewed him as the philosophical founder of modern conservatism.

In “Consistency in Politics” Winston Churchill wrote:

On the one hand [Burke] is revealed as a foremost apostle of Liberty, on the other as the redoubtable champion of Authority. But a charge of political inconsistency applied to this life appears a mean and petty thing. History easily discerns the reasons and forces which actuated him, and the immense changes in the problems he was facing which evoked from the same profound mind and sincere spirit these entirely contrary manifestations. His soul revolted against tyranny, whether it appeared in the aspect of a domineering Monarch and a corrupt Court and Parliamentary system, or whether, mouthing the watch-words of a non-existent liberty, it towered up against him in the dictation of a brutal mob and wicked sect. No one can read the Burke of Liberty and the Burke of Authority without feeling that here was the same man pursuing the same ends, seeking the same ideals of society and Government, and defending them from assaults, now from one extreme, now from the other.

And indeed, historian Piers Brendon credits Burke’ paternalistic insistence the colonial domination was a trust, with laying the moral foundations for the British Empire:  Burke wrote that “The British Empire must be governed on a plan of freedom, for it will be governed by no other”– it was to be so exercised for the benefit of subject people that they would eventually attain their birthright—freedom” …a noble aim that was in the event an ideological bacillus, as Brendon observed, that would prove fatal.

“You can never plan the future by the past.” – “Letter to a Member of the National Assembly” (1791)

“Justice is itself the great standing policy of civil society; and any eminent departure from it, under any circumstances, lies under the suspicion of being no policy at all”. – Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)

Burke c. 1767/69, from the studio of Joshua Reynolds

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“One who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived”*…

Even if 2020 [and indeed, the events of January 6, 2021] felt apocalyptic, it is reasonable to think we have not yet hit rock bottom. The threat of climate disaster and resource wars, the building of walls and refugee camps, the exorbitant wealth of powerful oligarchs alongside poverty and precarity—these will not go away with vaccines or new presidents. Amidst all this, no wonder Niccolò Machiavelli has returned to our reading lists. In his new biography of the Florentine Secretary, Machiavelli: The Art of Teaching the People What to Fear, originally published in French in 2017, historian Patrick Boucheron reminds us that there is always interest in Machiavelli in turbulent times “because he’s the man to philosophize in heavy weather. If we’re reading him today, it means we should be worried. He’s back: wake up.”

Born in 1469 in Florence, Machiavelli is a central figure in the Western canon of political philosophy. Though he is best known in the popular imagination as the conniving mastermind behind The Prince (written in 1513), which so many think of as a kind of House of Cards how-to guide for seizing and maintaining political power, we miss what is crucial when we reduce his political thought to the simplistic thesis that the ends justify the means. It is not this misunderstood consequentialism that is noteworthy in Machiavelli’s philosophy; what really makes his writing so radically distinctive is his class-based, materialist outlook. He came from an impoverished household, and his philosophy disrupted naturalized hierarchies and the hegemonic ideas that reproduce them. John Adams would rightly describe him as the founder of a “plebeian philosophy” that marshaled strong arguments for embracing popular control over government…

The introduction to the English edition of The Art of Teaching the People What to Fear, written in June 2019 for readers in the United States, begins with the theme of fear in politics and an issue of Time magazine with Trump on the cover. Boucheron argues that the United States had entered a “Machiavellian moment”—“the dawning realization of the inadequacy of the republican ideal”—in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and that today, under “Trumpian America,” a fusion of politics and fiction has allowed for techniques of domination to be perfected, setting “a general disregard for the ‘actual truth of the matter.’” Referencing George Orwell’s 1984, Boucheron sees the United States as captured by a propaganda machine that has undermined reality and common sense—“that sixth sense Machiavelli spoke of, the accessory knowledge that the people have of what is dominating them.” Given the pervasive lack of realism in U.S. politics today, it is clear that the republic would appear to Machiavelli as a corrupt order, not because the powerful few break the rules or because a faction attempts to undermine the integrity of elections, but because the people have been “either deceived or forced into decreeing their own ruin.” Perhaps the most important part of Machiavelli’s wisdom for our own time is that republics tend to become oligarchic, giving the powerful few indirect control over government…

Much maligned as a mere tactician of power, Machiavelli was in fact a philosopher of the people. His critique of oligarchic domination remains essential today: “Our Machiavellian Moment.”

* Niccolò Machiavelli

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As we ponder populism, we might recall that it was on this date in 1776 that Thomas Paine first published (albeit anonymously) his pamphlet “Common Sense.”  A scathing attack on “tyrant” King George III’s reign over the colonies and a call for complete independence, “Common Sense” advocated immediate action.  America, Paine argued, had a moral obligation to reject monarchy and declare independence.  An instant bestseller in both the colonies and Britain (over 120,000 copies in just a few months), it greatly affected public sentiment at a time when the question of independence was still undecided, and helped shape the deliberations of the Continental Congress leading up to the Declaration of Independence.

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