Forget About Falsification
Science works well as a way of finding out about the world, and philosophers have thought long and hard about how it works. As a research scholar in a discipline where there is a lot of controversy over this issue, I have also had reason to read and think quite a bit about it.
One of the most widely read philosophers of science is Karl Popper. He's associated with an attitude called falsificationism. It means two things.
- A hypothesis about the world is only scientific if it could in principle be proven wrong ("falsified") if untrue. This could also be phrased, "A lot of things are unknowable. Don't waste time and ink on speculations that can't be tested".
- The way to do good science is to formulate hypotheses and then try to falsify them. If a hypothesis survives repeated attempts at falsification with different data and angles of approach, then it may be taken to be true.
It's an unusual philosophical paper in that it has an empirical base. Hansson has looked at how the 70 articles in the journal Nature for the year 2000 are built from the perspective of the philosophy of science. Good science is after all produced continually, and, argues Hansson, to get into Nature studies must be very good indeed. So if Popper was right about how good science is done, then most of the studies in Nature should be structured around hypotheses and attempts to falsify them. As it turns out, they're not. Quite the contrary.
70% of the studies don't start out from any hypothesis at all. Hansson calls them explorative: they begin with simple questions such as "What is the molecular structure of this protein?" or "What is the base-pair sequence of that gene?". Formulating hypotheses would just be a waste of time here. What the scientists did was to make tricky and time-consuming observations and then report what they had seen and inferred from it.
Only 24% of the studies start from a Popperian favoured hypothesis that the scientists involved could try to falsify if they wanted to. But half of these hypotheses are framed in such a way that they would give equally conclusive knowledge regardless of whether they are confirmed or falsified. Only two studies (3% of the total 70) start from hypotheses that would give more conclusive knowledge if falsified than if confirmed.
So, Dear Reader, if you're doing research, never mind trying to falsify your own hypotheses: the people who publish in Nature don't. The thing to do is apparently to either a) go exploring, find out some useful/cool data, report it and suggest a well-argued interpretation of it, or b) make up a hypothesis and collect the best experimental evidence and arguments you can to support it.
But Hansson's paper leaves the first sense of falsification mentioned above untouched. A lot of things are in fact unknowable. Don't waste time and ink on speculations that can't be tested. And that pretty much kills off a lot of archaeological interpretation, particularly when it comes to attempts at reconstructing what prehistoric people thought and believed. Such a cautious, anti-speculative stance, by the way, is called positivism. It's extremely distasteful to some scholars, particularly the ones who profess to seek understanding rather than truth. But I'd like to see much more of it in archaeology.
Hansson, S.O. 2006 (antedated to 2004). Ealsificationism falsified. Foundations of Science 152. Kluwer.
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