Phillip Morris Week 2: Popper/Lakatos

September 11, 2011 at 4:07 pm | Posted in Week 2 | 1 Comment

Karl Popper single-handedly changed the nature of scientific inquiry with the postulation of his theory commonly known as falsifiability. This theory held that any scientific law that is to be considered “true” science as opposed to a trend, theory, dogma or pseudo-science must be subjected to rigorous scrutiny to determine its falsifiability. Furthermore, to be considered science it must contain the capacity (and indeed invite the challenge) of being proven false, which at the end of the day is the primary predicate for what constitutes science and scientific advancement. For Popper, falsifiability was the demarcation between science and pseudo-science. His theory also went to great lengths to refute holism and historicism. As a result,  it has proved to be equally applicable to the natural and the social sciences in that it posits that growth occurs by the continuous challenge of the status quo (falsifiability) rather than the acceptance of the status quo (verification).

Popper, however, eventual hoisted himself upon his own petards according to the estimates of some prominent critics like Imre Lakatos. At great pains, Lakatos paints Popper’s theory of “falsifiability” as an unavoidable pseudoscientific construct that in essence calls for the casual abandonment of established science whenever an anomaly is discovered within a law that heretofore had been accepted. Lakatos likened Popper’s approach to science as that of an instant “rationalist,” as someone who operated in regressive or “degenerating” fashion rather than someone who operated from a “progressive” program seeking to build upon existing laws which could be strengthened despite apparent inconsistencies.

Rather than Popper’s theory of falsifiability, Lakatos advocated the adoption of a scientific paradigm that continued to look for emerging or “novel” scientific knowledge in existing law. Given that Lakatos was a “glass is half full” kind of thinker, he posited that a progressive research program would always supercede a degenerating one in the inexorable advance of science.


Popper made a reputation early in his career by challenging giants on the order of Sigmund Freud, declaring the psychoanalysis’s work pseudoscience that couldn’t withstand the rigor of scientific challenge. He said Freud invented theories to explain any conceivable anomaly or inherent contradiction in his work. Yet later, when Popper’s preeminent intellectual triumph, the theory of falsifiability was challenged and proved inconsistent, if not false, he himself resorted to clever homiletics and double talk. He parsed a difference between theory modifications based on genuine science versus ad hoc convenience. Does this belated reversal in thought expose him as a fraud or rather as a matured scientist who came to a fuller understanding of what actually constitutes science?

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