Firstly, I would like to mention a meta-problem about the philosophy of science. Is the epistemology contained in the philosophy of science (Hume, Bacon, Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos, etc.) a way to understand how science has progressed thus far, or is it capable of directing us on how it should
Next, let us examine the criticism
of Popper's insistence on falsification as a test of science. A prominent critic of falsification as the foremost test for identifying pseudoscience was Imre Lakatos. The theory of 'falsification' has the basic requirement that there exist tests to determine falsifiability. Lakatos argues against this premise. To illustrate this, he uses the example of how Neptune was discovered from perturbations in the orbit of Uranus. The observations that led to the discovery of Neptune was that the Newtonian calculations of the orbit of Uranus did not conform with observations. This can be misconstrued as a critical test for the falsifiability of Newtonian mechanics, and thus used to determine that Newtonian mechanics is being wrong. However, we know that is not true. The perturbations were due to the hitherto undiscovered knowledge concerning the existence of Neptune. Falsification is different from an inability to corroborate. This distinction was not stated by Popper. Thus, Lakatos claims that we don't necessarily have to discard scientific theories whenever we encounter anomalies, unlike what Popper recommends. He takes the more nuanced view that science becomes pseudoscience (or wrong science) if over time the truth diverges further and further from observations, and as the anomalies increase in number.
Popper does allow for applied methodology and treats it as being different from the notion of provability/falsifiability. Popper claims that in applying a theory, errors may creep in and only after accounting for these errors are we supposed to comment on the validity of the theory in question. But this approach is problematic because it happens often that the distinction between the theory itself and its application are not clear. In the example above, anomalies in the orbit of Uranus were established by several experiments. So in essence, there is nothing wrong in the applied methodology. So, an assertion that Newtonian mechanics is wrong, is perfectly reasonable, and absurdly so.
Lakatos proposes that we discard Popper's view of falsifiability and look instead at 'research programs' as a whole, instead of individual falsifiable hypotheses, and look at the direction in which it is going. This is similar to Kuhn's view of 'paradigms' (as Lakatos acknowledges). Thus, continuing on the Uranus-Neptune example, the approach is to exhaustively eliminate all possibilities for the anomaly within the framework of Newtonian mechanics. One of the possible causes of the anomaly in Uranus' orbit, then becomes- 'a huge mass in the vicinity of Uranus, which we are yet to discover'. We see this happening repeatedly in science, especially since Popper's death. Whenever scientists encounter anomalies in existing research programs, they posit a placeholder to account for the anomaly and move on. Only when the foundations of the system are in question, following numerous anomalies, do scientists revisit theories.
Lakatos says in his book
, 'The methodology of scientific research programmes,' (spelling due to British publisher)
Quote:Thus, in a progressive research programme, theory leads to the discovery of hitherto unknown novel facts. In degenerating programmes, however, theories are fabricated only in order to accomodate known facts.
Now Lije said in the opening post,
Quote:The result of all this is that it is taking more time for scientific theories to become established or be proven wrong. A good example is Andrew Wakefield's fraudulent study linking autism with vaccines. It took four years to other teams to confirm that the study's conclusions are not valid and it took over 10 years to retract that paper. By then a self-sustaining anti-vaccine movement has formed which is causing the comeback of diseases like measles.
If we look at it in the framework of research programs and paradigms (Lakatos or Kuhn), Andrew Wakefield's paper was a single hypothesis challenging the status quo, and it shouldn't have been given the publicity in the first place. The press would have done well to wait for the general direction of the research program (which we may broadly describe as 'the effectiveness of vaccines in positively benefiting humans'). Sure enough, the hypothesis was quickly shown to be pseudoscience as other experimenters examined Wakefield's claim and showed it to be fraudulent. So, rather than a shortcoming of the scientific community (in its disregard for falsifiability), I would think that it is a serious problem with the news media's inability to appreciate the true nature of scientific progress. If the Uranus anomaly was discovered c. 2000, we would probably have seen headlines reading, 'Is Newtonian mechanics wrong?' As Ioannidis points out in the Atlantic article, it is not just news media that is misinterpreting research, but also doctors themselves. The reality is that modern medical research is slower than we would like it to be. Each journal paper doesn't represent a paradigm shift and not every year is 1905. While criticizing news media and doctors, we shouldn't lose sight of our own overeagerness to find the answer to all questions within our lifetimes, or worse, when it comes to medical research, within the duration of our illness.
Here is a recent addition related to this question. Science writer Jonah Lehrer wrote provocatively in a recent edition of Wired that 'science is failing us.' http://www.wired.com/magazine/2011/12/ff...tion/all/1
He doesn't directly talk about falsifiability of the Popper kind. He looks at the scientific approach of breaking down a complex issue by building causal relationships with simpler parts and the phenomenon as a whole. Does additional information acquired in the form of research necessarily lead to scientific progress? The specific examples he considers are that of recent research into cholesterol regulating drug trocetrapib that lead nowhere by the end of a multibillion dollar research project at Pfizer, hormone replacement therapy, the usefulness of Vitamin E supplements, and the (mis)diagnosis of back pain.
Quote:Even when a system is dissected into its basic parts, those parts are still influenced by a whirligig of forces we can’t understand or haven’t considered or don’t think matter.
Clearly, by strengthening standards for competence, one can argue that these are instances of incompetent application of the scientific method.
In my opinion, Jonah Lehrer, here and elsewhere, is being more alarmist than necessary. In reality, these are not 'failings of science', but 'failings of non-scientists and incompetent scientists'. Specifically, it is the failure of the society in general in misunderstanding the nature of science progress.