Popper’s Black Swan A Red Herring, Not A Menace

In “Popper’s falsification” Nov 12th 2021, rrameez tells us of a dirty swan he saw in Delft. This was a problem because its “black swan” status was uncertain. Was it really a black swan, in which case we could refute the theory that all swans are white?

Clearly, if nothing else, it was a clear case of uncertainty. And uncertainty is claimed to be a big problem with the Popperian approach, since that depends heavily on refutation, and if you can’t be certain about a refutation, well, then…

…Then what? Each time you leave the house, you have to refute over and over again the theory that a car is approaching. If you don’t, you won’t be able to get where you’re going safely. But how many times have you negotiated that uncertain task? Are you afraid of uncertainty? More importantly, does uncertainty in your decisions change your entire strategy?

No, to both the last two.


1: A strategy described in terms free from uncertainty, is not necessarily destroyed if it has to operate under uncertainty. Usually you just enhance it. Perception systems, both artificial and natural, not only cope with uncertainty but in ways we understand very well. Do you know haw much effort is going into robotic driving now? Another such artificial perception system is science itself. Indeed it not only detects well-known entities but helps validate or reject new ones.

2: The real world, and especially our perception of it, are both uncertain. Everyone appreciates that. However, not everyone appreciates that we are in the first half of the 21st century, not the first half of the 20th century… and so is philosophy. What gives philosophy its character these days is not the logic/statement-based approach of Russell, Wittgenstein, and, yes, Popper, but the game-theory world of ethologists, and goal-devising robots. It’s Logic Out, Expectation In. And Popper updated. Old Popperism is Dead – Long Live the New Popperism. But it’s still: “Create theories that try to explain/predict the best, and accept the ones that do best without being refuted”. So no real change, it’s just that we cope with uncertainty.

3: What scientists do is not necessarily what they should do. In some sciences, doing things wrong is the accepted norm, and they produce rubbish. They get away with it often because getting them wrong doesn’t matter. However, I can’t think of any scientific experiment other than estimations of values, or the “just wanted to see what happened” type, that weren’t based on the Popperian principle, involving refutation of the null hypothesis. Note, probability levels arise from such experiments! Da Dah: both Popperism and uncertainty in 100% of scientific experiments involving explicitly stated theories. Experimenters may string together variations on a theme of a certain experiment, and patterns in those groups of experiments can emerge that are not covered by elementary Popperism, but the elements making up the groups are still Popperian. To justify a claim that science isn’t actually Popperian, would require at least one outline of an approach to experimental design involving explicit theories, that wasn’t Popperian.

But I think it is true that Popperism is how science, or at least good science, is done.

[RRameez refers us to
Mulkay and Gilbert 1981 Phil. Soc. Sci. 11 (1981) 389-407. I’ll read this and probably get back and update this posting.]

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2 Responses to Popper’s Black Swan A Red Herring, Not A Menace

  1. rrameez says:

    Hi, actually I like Popper quite a lot. I know it might have not seemed like that in the post, but I do. But the thing is that if we observe the history of science right, then we see that scientists constantly put aside contradictory results and not because they want to do bad science. The idea often is that that particular refuting phenomenon will be sorted out later. So for example, consider Galileo. He couldn’t explain why objects were not flying off the surface of the earth, if the earth was rotating. That was a clear piece of falsifying evidence. Let’s consider Darwin. Darwin’s data was telling him that the gradualist program of evolution was false. Data suggested that evolution was in clear and distinct stages. Mendel did the same. He simply ignored a lot of the falsifying data. At a much narrower level, every experimenter knows that many experiments come out the wrong way, and therefore are reanalyzed and discarded – or sometimes just put on the shelf (in the same spirit as Galileo, Darwin et al)

    So in my humble view, science doesn’t work by the Popperian principles, not even close, and for good reasons. We never really know whether a particular phenomenon falsifies a theory. There are too many other possible factors, often unknown. Therefore, serious scientists (rationally) often put aside apparently conflicting evidence. Thanks for your comments!

  2. Hi rrameez –
    Sorry I only replied as a direct email before, rather than a comment here!
    I’ve read Mulkay and Gilbert now, and posted on it:
    The Vital Usefulness Of Popperism

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