Science And Pseudoscience according to Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos and me.

First of all. Yes, the title I’ve chosen makes me blush, but hey, I’m just following my own plan!

This post springs from a tweet by Keith R Laws (thanks!), that linked to Imre Lakatos commemorative pages, hosted by LSE. I did not know about Lakatos work and it has been a delightful discovery.  It also sent me into confusion, because I found myself agreeing with the general points made by Lakatos, and consequently unsure whether I needed to reconsider my own position or not. This post is the result of my re-evaluation, prompted by the discovery of Lakatos’ argument.

First: what does he say? I will not explain his reasoning in detail (please read the transcript instead), but will quote his key points, to see if they challenge or agree with what I’ve written so far.

The problem of the demarcation between science and pseudoscience is not merely a problem of armchair philosophy: it is of vital social and political relevance.

I agree with all my heart: this is why this blog starts with all this epistemology, and also why I’m finding myself unable to move on and tackle more practical matters. I feel that I have to get this right, especially because what I’m planning to do has high risks of being pseudoscience.
Back to Lakatos, he convincingly explains why the solution offered by Popper doesn’t work, and concludes with:

Is Popper’s falsifiability criterion the solution to the problem of demarcating science from pseudoscience? No.

I can agree with this as well, without having to revisit anything I’ve written so far. The next step, naturally, is to see if Kuhn offers an answer, but (surprise, surprise!) he doesn’t:

But if Kuhn is right, then there is no explicit demarcation between science and pseudoscience, no distinction between scientific progress and intellectual decay, there is no objective standard of honesty.

Again, I have no problem with this conclusion, Kuhn’s theory indeed ultimately rejects the epistemological superiority of the scientific method. On the other hand, I have explicitly supported this superiority, and now face the need to substantiate my claim a little more. All I’ve said so far is that whatever belief is supported by observations (evidence), has to be considered more reliable than what isn’t supported. I have also argued that all our beliefs are ultimately the result of one or more purpose that animates us. In other words, what we regard as true is never true in a vacuum, we consider it true because this belief allows us to achieve something (from opening my front door, to understanding why saying this or that may or may not make my girlfriend angry).

Lakatos seem to disagree with my stance here, as he starts by explicitly saying that:

The cognitive value of a theory has nothing to do with its psychological influence on people’s minds. Belief, commitment, understanding are states of the human mind. But the objective, scientific value of a theory is independent of the human mind which creates it or understands it. Its scientific value depends only on what objective support these conjectures have in facts.

Now, this is apparently troublesome, as I clearly can’t support this statement. I am essentially denying the possibility of unequivocally establishing if a theory is supported by objective facts, all I claim is that it is possible to rate the usefulness of competing theories, depending on which one happens to better describe what we’re dealing with. Implicitly, I’m also saying that under different circumstances, this rating is expected to change: in some cases, theory A will be better than theory B, in some others, the other way round. The significant variable being what are you planning to use the theory for. I don’t need the laws of thermodynamics to cook a fried egg, but they come in handy if I’m trying to build a fridge.

Lakatos defines something similar to Kuhn’s paradigms (or does he?), and talks about Research Programmes:

Now, Newton’s theory of gravitation, Einstein’s relativity theory, quantum mechanics, Marxism, Freudism, are all research programmes, each with a characteristic hard core stubbornly defended, each with its more flexible protective belt and each with its elaborate problem-solving machinery. Each of them, at any stage of its development, has unsolved problems and undigested anomalies. All theories, in this sense, are born refuted and die refuted. But are they equally good? Until now I have been describing what research programmes are like. But how can one distinguish a scientific or progressive programme from a pseudoscientific or degenerating one?

And the solution is:

all the research programmes I admire have one characteristic in common. They all predict novel facts, facts which had been either undreamt of, or have indeed been contradicted by previous or rival programmes.
In degenerating programmes, however, theories are fabricated only in order to accommodate known facts.

He doesn’t talk about purposes, but I believe the concept is implicit: a good new theory allows to make new predictions, and new predictions will be useful to someone, somewhere, facilitating the adoption of the new theory. Lakatos calls a programme that has this ability to produce new predictions “progressive”, and crucially adds:

As opposed to Popper the methodology of scientific research programmes does not offer instant rationality. One must treat budding programmes leniently: programmes may take decades before they get off the ground and become empirically progressive. Criticism is not a Popperian quick kill, by refutation. Important criticism is always constructive: there is no refutation without a better theory.

I couldn’t agree more, and will spend a few more words to show how my own contributions fit in Lakatos view.
In the previous posts, I’ve defined the scientific attitude (see also this post), and added two concepts: the first one is that a correct scientific attitude requires to be ready to throw away a theory if needed, no matter how solid it is, and that when working within a given theory, there needs to be a clear and indisputable drive toward solidification. The second concept is equivalent to Lakatos’ dichotomy between degenerating and progressive programmes, I don’t think I need to discuss this similarity at length: a degenerating program is one that is losing its potential to improve, it simply can’t be solidified much more. A progressing programme is generating new predictions, and further developments are consistently expanding its explanatory powers. The more correct predictions are made, the more solid the programme becomes (and paradoxically, the less interesting it gets). What I haven’t been able to explain follows Lakatos contribution, and revolves around when it is appropriate to abandon a given theory, the details are below.

Conclusions, according to both Lakatos and me:

  • Albeit we started from very different positions, Lakatos and I fundamentally agree on what distinguishes science from pseudoscience. To use my own definitions, pseudoscience happens when someone sticks to a given theory even if:
    • Another already developed theory is demonstrably better at describing the observable phenomena (can make more accurate predictions).
    • And/or, despite all efforts, no new useful predictions are being generated via the old theory, while there may be evidence out there that another competing theory is emerging.
  • On the other hand, speculating with the intent of generating a new theory is risky (as it may fail), but is not inherently unscientific.

I also may add my own contributions:

  • There is nothing wrong in applying an old, surpassed theory to make predictions, if and only if these are the predictions that solidified said theory. In this sense, my notion of purpose justifies the survival of theories that are shown to be imperfect (the purpose drives the choice of the appropriate theory). This is important for my discourse because I postulate that all theories (I normally call them Models) are imperfect, always and without exception.
  • The whole explanation also resonates with my concept of cognitive attraction: Lakatos explains how a programme has some core ideas (strong attractors) and a “vast ‘protective belt’ of auxiliary hypotheses” (weaker attractors that depend on the strong ones). A degenerating theory will react to refutations by changing, adapting and strengthening the protection belt, leaving the strong attractors in place. My point being that this process is irrational, but entirely natural and predictable.
  • Together with cognitive attractions, my focus on purpose also allows to attempt an elaborate rescue of Kuhn (if I may): he observed and highlighted the fundamental irrationality associated with the onset of “scientific revolutions”. Lakatos refutes this view, explaining why after all, changes happen for rational (?) reasons. My addendum here is that (pretending to accept that we can agree on what is rational), I can produce a more precise model. Say that theory A is solid, and that N “A” scientists successfully work with it, pay their bills and enjoy well deserved pints. Along comes theory B, that is still less solid than A, but seems to produce some better predictions. Trouble is, theory B is built on new maths, or some other concept that the “A” scientists are unfamiliar with. What should the “A” people do? Their purposes include: pay their bills, drink their pints, and avoid unnecessary efforts (because of cognitive attraction, adopting theory B requires a lot of effort), so they will resist the change. However, the change will probably happen despite the resistance of the “A” camp. With time, new scientists, familiar with B, will be formed and will eventually take over; while this happens, certain (probably young) supporters of “A” will certainly do the jump as well. That’s an account of the (apparently) irrational resistance (shown by Kuhn), along with the explanation of why and under what circumstances the shift may happen nevertheless (following Lakatos). Yes, it’s obvious, but someone still needs to write it down.

I’m left with an open question: is this whole post a sign that my theory is already degenerating? I have my own idea, but I’ll leave the answer to you.

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Philosophy, Premises, Science
15 comments on “Science And Pseudoscience according to Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos and me.
  1. I am glad you’ve found Lakatos. However, if you find one student of Popper, you can’t forget about the other: Paul Feyerabend. At first sight, Lakatos & Feyerabend cannot be more different, but on a deeper reading they become strikingly similar. I highly recommend looking at “Against Method”, because I think it will be particularly traumatizing but also enlightening to your personal philosophy.

    I don’t think the demarcation problem can ever be settled, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to learn more and more about the border. I’ve attempted my own explanation here (inspired by Popper, Feyerabend, and Deutsch).

    • Sergio Graziosi says:

      Thanks Artem,
      Looks like more food for thought just entered my ever-growing list.
      The demarcation problem is certainly never going to become 100% solid: it is, at least in part, a moving target, as it is influenced by imagination and creativity. People constantly seek and find new approaches to investigate the infinite supply of subjects, so that any existing demarcation system can and will be eventually surpassed. Before reading what you suggest, I can say that this consideration doesn’t worry me: the demarcation method I’m toying with is, as everything else, a conceptual model that can be useful to solve a given problem. It is not, and can’t be, a system to define with absolute confidence what is science and what isn’t; such a system is, at least from the point of view I’m exploring here, intrinsically impossible.
      Not sure about the traumatising bit, I was hoping to move onto more practical matters, but may now need to reconsider…

  2. […] result is another series of posts, that introduced my metaphor of solidity. Real science is what tries to become more and more solid, that is: tries to produce more trustworthy predictions and/or increase the precision of such […]

  3. […] say is that postulating its existence is useful for the task at hand. Hence, my own approach to the discrimination problem (between science and pseudo science) can be applied to answer the question, can Science inform […]

  4. […] on the macro-scale, proponents of a given theory will generate new explanations to account for anomalies, actively avoiding to question the usefulness of their preferred theory. I’ve discussed this process in some length in a previous post. […]

  5. agrudzinsky says:

    Regarding Lakatos quote “But the objective, scientific value of a theory is independent of the human mind which creates it or understands it. Its scientific value depends only on what objective support these conjectures have in facts.”

    I don’t understand how value can be “objective”. As you noted, “values” don’t exist in vacuum. Value is determined by the goal of an individual. For a person dying from thirst in a desert, a glass of water would be more valuable than a pound of gold. Values vary not only from person to person, but they also may vary when a person changes his goals.

    I tend to agree with Hume that beliefs are irrational. The reason we believe A and not B is not because A is more rational. It’s because we emotionally like A better than B for whatever reason. People don’t believe what’s rational. They rationalize what they believe. “Rationality” is perceived. What seems reasonable to one person may not seem reasonable to another. If it were not so, there would be no discussions or arguments, no courts, no lawyers, no politicians.

    When one person uses rational arguments or evidence to convince another person, the other person changes his view not because of the “rationality” of the arguments or “weight” of the evidence, but because the first person influenced the other person emotionally in some way. If atheists presented their ideas in magnificent cathedrals and used organ music, they would convince a lot more people. But they would become no different from religion.

    • Sergio Graziosi says:

      Hey, thanks for all the comments, I don’t know if I’ll manage to reply exhaustively, but I will certainly try.
      I am with you on the fact that people rationalise what they believe (usually) [see also Cognitive Attraction], so I should be inclined to agree also that one can’t assign an objective value to anything. But in fact, I’m not, and your objection is very relevant: it goes straight at the heart of what I’m trying to say.
      The trouble is that answering requires a long explanation. Let’s see what I’ve got: in here I claim that it is possible to compare the validity of competing models. In detail, one needs to define a purpose (closely related to what you refer as “value”), and use it to inform the comparison. In my case, the purpose of the models I’m considering is to describe reality (identify the regularities of the material world, in order to make reliable predictions) and I’m saying that one needs the scientific attitude to generate, validate and refine the models justified by said purpose.
      The consequence is that I completely agree with Lakatos: once the purpose is clarified, the irrational part of human nature is conveniently brushed aside, allowing to make claims of objectivity, specifically because this objectivity is implied by the current purpose (one wants to make predictions that apply to the external reality and can be recognised as true or false by observing such reality, the observer is, at least in principle, inconsequential).
      This is a key passage, so I’ll clarify it further: say that John holds a particular view of the world, and holds it because it gives him an agreeable moral compass, or makes his life feel meaningful, or makes him feel part of a trustworthy community, or allows him to overcome his fear of death. These are all possible purposes for legitimate models, and one can say that they are not rational, because their aim is not to describe reality as it is. A model justified but such purposes is obviously, not scientific, though. Or better, if it claims to “describe reality as it is” it will be possible to contrast it with truly scientific models, and objectively (e.g. in a manner that is at least theoretically independent from the observer) find out which one is more reliable.
      What I’m proposing in this blog is that when the purpose is scientific (describe reality), models that can be validated empirically are by definition epistemologically superior to models that can’t, it’s a tautology if you want. Of course the reverse is true: if your purpose is to provide a sense of meaning, models that are specifically designed to do so are probably going to work better than model that are designed to describe reality as precisely as possible.
      In this way, both objectivity and our irrational nature are accounted for. Objectivity can exist only if/when one actually wants to get closer to the empirical truth (a well defined purpose) and irrationality is everywhere, because human beings have all sorts of other non-material purposes.
      In your own blog you state that:

      It is my fundamental belief that fundamental beliefs do not need justification.

      So, in your own terms, my own fundamental belief is that understanding reality as it is is a good thing. But I do need to justify this, and I’m trying to, in a long and taxing way: I have tried to rescue knowledge, scientific method and objectivity while acknowledging our irrational nature and the fact that all our beliefs are guaranteed to be imprecise (at best).
      With some luck, I will eventually find a way to rescue other “higher” purposes (the ones mentioned in the example above) and thus close the circle. If exploring and describing reality can eventually answer “spiritual” (if you allow me the term) needs, I will have justified my initial belief: that trying to understand the naked reality (as much as possible) is a good thing.
      Many have tried this path so far (and failed!), but there are new reasons to try it once more: advances in science (practical, in terms of ability to look into biological mechanisms, and theoretical in terms of new models that allow us to describe complex biological systems) are just now showing that such an aspiration is not hopelessly wishful. To see why, you’ll need to read my posts on the biological origin of morality, and given your most recent post, I’m guessing you will not like them.

    • agrudzinsky says:

      Sergio, I think, I misunderstood Lakatos. I agree that

      once the purpose is clarified, the irrational part of human nature is conveniently brushed aside

      I also agree that it’s important to perceive reality “as it is”. Let’s consider what this “as it is” means. I wrote in one of my posts about this web site which states that “meaning is exclusion”. Read what it says and play with the interactive diagrams. To correctly identify things and say what they are, you need definitions. To define something means to draw a line between “A” and “not A”. These lines are drawn in our mind. They do not exist in reality. But once these arbitrary lines are drawn, things become defined and can be called “objective”. Once two people agree where the line is, it’s easy for both to agree on which side of the line an object is located.

      E.g. you look at an animal and try to decide whether it’s a dog or a cat. To do that, you need to use a definition of a dog and a definition of a cat. Once you draw a line, a distinctive feature between a dog and a cat (e.g. cats meyow, and dogs bark), it’s not up to you any more to say what the animal is. You can’t twist reality and say that meyowing is, actually, barking (again, if you properly define both).

      Another example from my work — quality assurance of integrated circuits. When I assess the quality of the product, I determine whether the product conforms to the specification. Specs are chosen to fit a purpose of the product. The subjectivity ends when the spec is chosen. After that, the judgment is objective. I test a parameter and compare the value to the test limit. The test limit serves the purpose of the line separating “good” from “bad”.

      Regarding my post on Harris. Science is a tool. I can compare it to a navigation system. A navigation system can take you from point A to point B. But you have to set the destination. Otherwise, the navigation system won’t take you anywhere. The navigation system cannot set the destination for you. Once the destination is set, the navigation system will tell you “where to go”. In this sense, science can help to guide moral decisions. It can tell you if you need to turn right or left in any current situation in order to get to point B. But it will never set the destination for you. Same applies to the “moral compass”.

    • Sergio Graziosi says:

      We’re getting closer!
      I like the idea that “meaning is exclusion”, but I need to put some more thought on meaning in general, as I do think defining only as exclusion may limit the concept a little too much. What concerns me is that meaning is usually perceived as “positive”, in the sense that qualifies by adding qualities. Sometimes it looks difficult to reduce all meaning as exclusions, especially when new relations between existing concepts are identified: it’s always formally possible to define a new concept negatively, but I’m not sure it’s worth the effort. Just a hunch, I do need to think about it.
      The other line of thought is nicely outlined by Dawkins again via Edge’s annual question: Essentialism is a wrong way of thinking, but it is not excluded by the definition of meaning as exclusion (!), so there is more to be said about this, but you can settle for a synthetic observation that all separating lines are in fact somewhat blurred, they are not sharp and one-dimensional. Patricia Churchland made exactly this point at the beginning of the lecture that I’ve commented here.
      I do think that Harris does inflate science a little too much: to me, science happens when empirical verification is in sight (at least as a long term aspiration), putting a lot of philosophy out of reach, for now. You can also have a look at my comments on Chalmers’ annual lecture to get an idea. The boundary between philosophy and science moves all the time, but that doesn’t mean that all philosophy is scientific or that it should try to become scientific. Also, I diverge from Harris because he’s happy to use the term “Rationality” as if it represented a well defined concept and a common human attitude. It is neither (I think we agree on this!), but I still need to do some background work to finally arrive to a definition of “Rationality” that can hold some water.
      On using science as a moral compass: we are clearly on different pages, perhaps because I come for biology and I can see the promise of evolutionary thinking in clarifying what does make us thrive. You seem quite happy to believe that you can’t derive “ought from is” (BTW, in your post on Harris you do derive ought-nots for “is”, and if meaning is exclusion then you have a circularity problem yourself) while I think that we can’t do otherwise. Once we start understanding how our inner life is shaped by evolution and environment (or genes and experience), the “oughts” start jumping at us, whether we like it or not.

  6. agrudzinsky says:

    A note on “useful predictions”. This term seems ambiguous as it may refer to (1) practical predictions about known phenomena and (2) theoretical predictions of new phenomena.

    Example of (1): Newton’s mechanics can predict speeds and direction of two billiard balls after collision. It’s a useful and parctical prediction and it will remain useful and practical regardless of the limitations of Newton’s mechanics.

    Example of (2): Prediction of Higgs boson.

    A note regarding “refutation”. General relativity does not prove Newton’s mechanics incorrect, but rather shows the limits of its scope and offers a wider theory. Newton’s mechanics is a particular case of general relativity theory successfully describing motion at speeds << c. At speeds <<c, Newton's mechanics is "better" (more practical) than general relativity because it's a lot simpler.

    Copernicus model of the Solar system does not prove Ptolemy's model "false". It simply offers a "better" (i.e. simpler and more practical) way to explain the planetary movements.

    Many scientists note that what makes one scientific idea "better" than the other is often a matter of aesthetic preference: perceived elegance and simplicity — using fewer elements and assumptions, symmetry — such as seen in Maxwell's electromagnetism. And aesthetic preference is irrational and subjective. I think, I read about this in Hawking's "The Grand Design" book.

  7. agrudzinsky says:

    I don’t think, there is a litmus test for pseudoscience. But here are a couple links with some guidelines on how to tell them apart. A signle “sign” may not be enough to label research as “pseudoscience”, but if a large number of these “signs” are present, they add weight to the argument. Your individual “tipping point” is still subjective.

    “Pseudo” means “fake”.

    You said: what is intelligence?
    Fake Kirk: Intelligence is the ability to fake intelligence.

    Hehe… Funny, but it seems to be very true.

  8. […] of suffering known to humanity: normative societies. On the other hand, science, when it does not degenerate into pseudo-science, can’t form a solid and long-lasting alliance with vested-interests, that’s the direct […]

  9. […] While I was exploring Science Epistemology and the Demarcation Problem, Artem found me and commented in exactly the way I would have hoped: providing new food for thought. A few months later his post […]

  10. Siri says:
    Very good read on the Popper vs Kuhn + Lakatos vs Feyerabend

    • Sergio Graziosi says:

      Thanks Siri,
      I’ve skimmed it last night and it does seem juicy, if a bit skewed towards Fuller’s own connection to Social Epistemology. That’s not a flaw, in fact it is part of what makes this book look interesting to me.
      Only problem: I need to get a few sabbaticals in order to have some hope of reducing my ever-growing reading list, first step would be getting an academic job, and I’m not even on the market…

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