Monday, January 27, 2014

Blank On The Map: Is falsifiability a scientific idea due for retirement?

Sean Carroll argues that it is.

He characterises the belief that "theories should be falsifiable" as a "fortune-cookie-sized motto"; it's a position adopted only by "armchair theorizers" and "amateur philosophers", and people who have no idea how science really works. He thinks we need to move beyond the idea that scientific theories need to be falsifiable; this appears to be because he wants to argue that string theory and the idea of the multiverse are not falsifiable ideas, but are still scientific.

This position is not just wrong, it's ludicrous. 

What's more, I think deep down Sean – who is normally a clear, precise thinker – realises that it is ludicrous. Midway through his essay, therefore, he flaps around trying to square the circle and get out of the corner he has painted himself into: a scientific theory must, apparently, still be "judged on its ability to account for the data", and it's still true that "nature is the ultimate guide". But somehow it isn't necessary for a theory to be falsifiable to be scientific.

Now, I'm not a philosopher by training. Therefore what follows could certainly be dismissed as "amateur philosophising". I'm almost certain that what I say has been said before, and said better, by other people in other places. Nevertheless, as a practising scientist with an argumentative tendency, I'm going to have to rise to the challenge of defending the idea of falsifiability as the essence of science. Let's start by dismantling the alternatives.

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