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Why the falsifying attitude is useful in science itself is that, particularly in the early stages of investigating a problem, science advances by ruling out incorrect hypotheses rather than immediately zeroing in on the perfect theory. In fact, in many domains of life this is often the case as well. It is often difficult to specify what the best type of performance might be, but performance errors are much easier to spot. Particularly in the early stages of an investigation, a focus on what is wrong—on eliminating incorrect beliefs—is often a very fruitful approach for a scientist to take.

Many scientists have attested to the importance of understanding that making errors in the course of science is normal and that the real danger to scientific progress is our natural human tendency to avoid exposing our beliefs to situations in which they might be shown to be wrong. Here is a way of thinking about what Medawar is saying.

What Medawar is saying is that science rejects truthiness. This often puts science at odds with modern society, where truthiness is more prevalent than ever. Azar describes how Crowder developed a theory of one component of memory called precategorical acoustic storage and then carefully designed the studies that falsified his own model.

What do you do, sir? The unique power of science to reveal knowledge about the world does not arise because scientists are uniquely virtuous that they are completely objective; that they are never biased in interpreting findings, etc. Philosopher Daniel Dennett has made the same point by arguing that it is not necessary for every scientist to display the objectivity of Robert Crowder. Thoughts Are Cheap Our earlier discussion of the idea of testing folk wisdom leads us to another interesting corollary of the falsifiability principle: Thoughts are cheap. To be specific, what we mean here is that certain kinds of thoughts are cheap.

Biologist and science writer Stephen J. Gould illustrated this point: Fifteen years of monthly columns have brought me an enormous correspondence from nonprofessionals about all aspects of science. I have found that one common misconception surpasses all others. People will write, telling me that they have developed a revolutionary theory, one that will expand the boundaries of science. These theories, usually described in several pages of single-spaced typescript, are speculations about the deepest ultimate questions we can ask—what is the nature of life?

But thoughts are cheap. Any person of intelligence can devise his half dozen before breakfast. Scientists can also spin out ideas about ultimates. What good to science is a lovely idea that cannot, as a matter of principle, ever be affirmed or denied? Gould was telling us that such theories are useless for scientific purposes, however comforting they may be.

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Science is a creative endeavor, but the creativity involves getting conceptual structures to fit the confines of empirical data. This is tough. These types of thoughts—those that explain the world as it actually is—are not cheap. Probably this is why good scientific theories are so hard to come by and why unfalsifiable pseudoscientific belief systems proliferate everywhere—the latter are vastly easier to construct. Theories in science make contact with the world.

They are falsifiable. They make specific predictions. Actually coming up with the theories that are truly scientific explanations is a difficult task. However, understanding the general logic by which science works is not so difficult. Indeed, there are plenty of materials about the logic of scientific thinking that have been written for children Binga, ; Bower, ; Dawkins, ; Epstein, ; Swanson, , Errors in Science: Getting Closer to the Truth In the context of explaining the principle of falsifiability, we have outlined a simple model of scientific progress.

Theories are put forth and hypotheses are derived from them. The hypotheses are tested by a variety of techniques that we shall discuss in the remainder of this book.

How to Think Straight about Psychology by Keith E. Stanovich

If the hypotheses are confirmed by the experiments, then the theory receives some degree of corroboration. Of course, saying that knowledge in science is tentative and that hypotheses derived from theories are potentially false does not mean that everything is up for grabs. It is highly unlikely that we shall find one day that blood does not circulate in the veins and arteries or that the earth does not orbit the sun.

These mundane facts are not the type of hypotheses that we have been talking about. They are of no interest to scientists precisely because they are so well established.


Scientists are interested only in those aspects of nature that are on the fringes of what is known. They are not interested in things that are so well confirmed that there is no doubt about them. This aspect of scientific practice—that scientists gravitate to those problems on the fringes of what is known and ignore things that are well confirmed so-called laws —is very confusing to the general public.

This is true, and there is a very good reason for it. To advance knowledge, scientists must be at the outer limits of what is known.

How to think straight about psychology

Of course, this is precisely where things are uncertain. But science advances by a process of trying to reduce the uncertainty at the limits of knowledge. But this perception is deceiving. Scientists are only uncertain at the fringes of knowledge—where our understanding is currently being advanced. Scientists are not uncertain about the many facts that have been well established by replicable research. Quite the contrary, the new theory must explain all of the facts that the old theory could explain plus the new facts that the old theory could not explain.


So the falsification of a theory does not mean that scientists have to go back to square one. Complex theories can be generally right without being perfectly right; and beliefs can be getting closer to the truth without being exactly true Radcliffe Richards, First, he warned us not to think that the ancient belief in a flat earth was stupid. On a plain where the first civilizations with writing developed , the earth looks pretty flat, and Asimov urged us to consider what a quantitative comparison of different theories would reveal. First, we could express the different theories in terms of how much curvature per mile they hypothesized.

The flat-earth theory would say that the curvature is 0 degrees per mile. This theory is wrong, as we know. But in one sense, it is close. From the difference in shadow length, he calculated the size of the earthly sphere and it turned out to be 25, miles circumference. The curvature of such a sphere is about 0. The tiny difference between 0 and 0.

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Mind you, even a tiny difference, such as that between 0 and 0. The difference mounts up. As we discussed earlier, scientists are always trying to refine their theories as much as possible and to test the limits of current knowledge. It is something called an oblate spheroid. The curvature of the earth is not constant as in a perfect sphere ; instead, it varies slightly from 7.

When scientists believed that the earth was a sphere, they realized that, in detail, this theory might someday need to be altered. We do not expect to wake up one day and find that it is a cube.

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This view, which is popular in certain postmodernist circles, neglects to distinguish knowledge claims that are more certain from those that are less certain. Still others, such as cognitive dissonance theory, are scientifically controversial. Hence, there is a continuum of confidence in scientific claims; some have acquired virtual factual status whereas others have been resoundingly falsified.

The fact that methodological skepticism does not yield completely certain answers to scientific questions—and that such answers could in principle be overturned by new evidence—does not imply that knowledge is impossible, only that this knowledge is provisional. Paleontologist Neil Shubin has described how creationists use this tactic. Why should we believe you about anything?

Summary What scientists most often mean by a solvable problem is a testable theory. The definition of a testable theory is a very specific one in science: It means that the theory is potentially falsifiable. If a theory is not falsifiable, then it has no implications for actual events in the natural world and, hence, is useless. Psychology has been plagued by unfalsifiable theories, and that is one reason why progress in the discipline has been slow. Good theories are those that make specific predictions, and such theories are highly falsifiable.

The confirmation of a specific prediction provides more support for the theory from which it was derived than the confirmation of a prediction that was not precise. In short, one implication of the falsifiability criterion is that all confirmations of theories are not equal. Theories that receive confirmation from highly falsifiable, highly specific predictions are to be preferred. Even when predictions are not confirmed i. A falsified prediction indicates that a theory must either be discarded or altered so that it can account for the discrepant data pattern.

Thus, it is by theory adjustment caused by falsified predictions that sciences such as psychology get closer to the truth.