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Pro or contra Karl Popper's style with induction?

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Anja M
Anja M Sep 08, 2020
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Inductive reasoning is the base of scientific reasoning. We reach a certain number of verified claims upon which a hypothesis is established. But underneath this method lies what is known as a problem of induction. Now, I would like to open a discussion by presenting Karl Popper’s view and a potential solution to it and ask what do you think of it, as it is still an evergreen topic in science. Would you accept or deny it, while still acknowledging the problem of induction exists? Or would you see a proposition for some middle ground?

This problem clarifies that no matter how many verified claims we amount, they still represent an approximation and can never bridge the gap to the unquestionable truth. If I have seen 1000 black crows, and in the next month a 1000 more, my claim that “All crows are black.” is not getting any more support. This quantity cannot substitute for “quality”, which in this case would stand for superseding the possibility there are white crows to refute our claim.

And Popper is aiming at precisely this. Because there can never be enough support for conclusively positing our hypotheses, we have to rely on deductive reasoning, therefore trying to find reasons against our hypotheses. His idea relies on the insight that we can only defy claims with certainty, but not corroborate them. So, for Popper, a real scientist, as he would say, would not try to claim any truthfulness, but only probability. Also, she is aware that when starting a research, we always have some prior beliefs, and so science can never be based on pure observation.
Ergo, through something called modus tollens in logic, Popper basically proposes his falsification method:
If (“I walk 5km today”) then (“I will fulfill my daily quota”)
I didn’t fulfill my daily quota.
Therefore, I didn’t walk 5km today.

But although quite intuitive and persuasive when it comes to the ad hoc visible strength of falsification compared with verification, is there really nothing to object to this method? The objections started even with Popper’s contemporaries. To name a few most prominent:
  1. We simply have to recognize that science does not work this way most of the time. Even though this may prove conclusive and shed more light on the wrongness of some hypothesis or auxiliary hypothesis, scientists try to gather more and more varied (this is important to keep in mind as a scientist) evidence for their assumptions.
  2. It is very hard to reach a consensus about which theories we take as basic ones. This is important because then we are not able to determine which ones are prior beliefs we posit as indubitable for the time being.
  3. To be completely certain in falsification, we have to add more contextual assumptions, and they are based on induction. Picture this example:
If I expose polaroid photos to the sun for long, they will fade.
They didn’t fade.
Therefore, I didn’t expose them to the sun for long.

Logically, this syllogism is flawless. But empirically, can I really conclude because the photos didn’t fade, I didn’t expose them to the sun? And what does “for long” really mean? Maybe I exposed them for 2 hours, but at least 4 was considered “long”.
See what we did there? I am eager to hear your support or criticism of Popper. Do you sometimes use this method in your own research?
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Innocent until proven guilty

Shubhankar Kulkarni
Shubhankar Kulkarni Sep 08, 2020
I agree that the problem of induction exists. I also agree that science can progress even with the problem of induction. This is something scientists and lawyers have in common. A lawyer has never seen the crime. Most of the time, they do not care whether the suspect is guilty or not. Their job is to present the evidence. That is exactly what scientists do. There is something that the scientists can take from Law that is related to the current discussion. Most countries have a policy – “innocent until proven guilty”. This means that the accused/ defendant is considered innocent of the crime in context until sufficient evidence says otherwise. Why not use the same thing in research? A researcher investigates and reports something. Let’s take the example from the session. The researcher studies crows and reports that all of them are black. If the evidence provided by the researcher is sufficient (maybe photographs of the crows studied), we consider that “all crows are black”. If in the future another researcher finds sufficient evidence suggesting that some crows are dark blue, then the statement changes to “crows are either black or dark blue”. This way we do establish a fact but are flexible enough to suggest that it is falsifiable.
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Anja M
Anja M4 years ago
Yes, I think this actually is the way science usually works, though I haven't considered connecting it with law, thank you for that comparison, it is useful. The underlying point one can take contra falsification here is that even though one found dark blue, or even white crow, for that matter, would it really disprove the claim: "All crows are black."? Additionally, rules of logic imply that universal judgments ("all/none") do not imply reality of existence of a certain thing. But on the other hand, even though all this is true, a couple of issues remain. First, we must set the threshold when an example is enough to defy our theory, and when auxiliary hypotheses can save it. Science is widely aware of this, and usually in a particular filed this can be established clearly enough pretty often. Secondly, Popper had contra-arguments to the objections posted above, and I am more curious about them: 1) He said his theory is supposed to represent a normative, thus methodological claim on how science is supposed to work. 2) He wouldn't advocate for a theory to be rejected even if it yields false results in the case there is no better one at the moment. 3) It is rational to choose justified theories, even though that means we have no inductive base for holding them true. 3 contra) However, Richard Jeffrey (1975) pointed out on particularly this example that it would mean that it is as hard to verify a theory, as is to defy, or falsify, it. This is a curious example and sounds very intuitively tempting. Jeffrey further developed it to show how it is more appealing to rely on the empirical degree of support for a hypothesis, and that sounds acceptable. However, if we accept even only 1) for a norm, or 2) as a temporary ground, it means we cannot fully leave Popper in the field idle theorizing. So I am curious for us to explore more on the real examples it is used in science, to see how these arguments hold.
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Shubhankar Kulkarni
Shubhankar Kulkarni4 years ago
I agree that universal judgments ("all/ none") do not imply the reality of existence of a certain thing. Things are clearly in the gray area. That is the reason researchers talk in terms of proportions and probabilities. I also agree that we need a threshold or bounds in which a certain theory or its contradiction stands true. Researchers, therefore, indicate the range in which the proposed theory stands true. They also indicate limitations to their theory. I don't know whether Popper’s contra-arguments are backed by empirical evidence: 1) His theory definitely falls in the area of how theories should be stated and taken according to him. I think this is idealistic and theoretical. Applications of this theory in real life are limited. 2) I understand this but it is hard to agree with. This may stem from the fear of unleashing a storm without finding ways to stop it first. However, I think if something stands disproved, it should not be considered supreme thereafter. Disproving a theory and finding an alternative are two independent events. 3) I am not sure why a justified theory should have no inductive base. I agree we need real-life examples.
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