Falsifiability? Let's not be Naive.
Achilles942: I'm posting the following video to try to illustrate the naivete of our members' understanding of falsification in science:
Now, on one hopelessly naive understanding of falsification in science, when observation/evidence is at odds with theory, the theory is falsified and must be rejected.
Lest it be objected that I'm attacking a strawman, consider the following quote, which I regard as fairly typical, from kittybobo34 in the "Dark Matter and the Age of the Universe" thread, top of page 2:
"Faith in a theory? The theory works until some evidence refutes it, don't see where faith comes in"
Whether Kitty, and others like her, realize it, what she is espousing is a long-discredited, vaguely Popperian model of theory change in science.
Thomas Khun offers what I believe to be a far more accurate picture. As a sketch (my own paraphrase):
"Under conditions of 'normal science' (Kuhn's technical term), that is, the vast majority of scientific work, the truth of the overarching theoretical paradigm is largely -- one might say "dogmatically" -- taken for granted. No attempt, by and large, is made to attack or falsify the paradigm. To do so runs the risk of excluding oneself from the science game altogether.
All major theories are born into an ocean of anomalies, i.e., cases where the evidence does not sit comfortably with the theory. So-called 'normal science' consists of a process of reconciliation; MAKING recalcitrant evidence fit theory. Far from trying to falsify the regnant paradigm, the task of the 'normal scientist' is to find some way to make recalcitrant data (another man's falsifying evidence) compatible with it.
If there can be any talk of 'testing' at all here, what is under test is the SCIENTIST, not the theory. Any failure to assimilate awkward evidence with theory is regarded as a failure of the scientist, not the theory/paradigm. The theory is just fine, thank you very much"
(end of Kuhn paraphrase)
Achilles942: Now, back to Dawkins.... at 0:25 we are told, "There has got to be a series of advantages all the way, in the feather. If you can't think of one, then that's your problem, not natural selection's problem. Natural selection, er, um, well, I suppose that is a matter of faith on my part..."
Of course, there is another logical conclusion that could be drawn from "I can't think of any way to reconcile theory with recalcitrant evidence", namely, the theory is false. Needless to say, this possibility does not even enter Dawkins' mind.
So, does this sound to you like:
(i) A la Popper, a man hell-bent on having a theory falsified whenever evidence conflicts with theory?
(ii) A la Kuhn, a man who takes the truth of his theory for granted, and in any case where evidence is at odds with theory, and you can't rectify the situation, that's your own failure, not a failure of the theory? Where does the failure lie: with the theory or the lack of the scientist's imagination?
Now, compare with Kitty's gambit: when the evidence is at odds with my theory (sharks and horseshoe crabs, etc.), there must be an "unrecognized force" at work. My theory is just fine, thank you very much.
Does she sound like a scientist hell-bent on falsifying a pet theory? Or a person trying very hard to do precisely the opposite: PROTECT her theory against falsification?
Again, I emphasize, I make no normative judgements on the rightness and wrongness of all this. That's the scientists' business.
What I do want to stress again, is the tension between bragging about the 'falsifiability' of a pet theory, while simultaneously taking every measure possible to prevent it from being falsified.
Achilles942: Whatever else we can say about falsification, one fact from the history of science glares out at us: Scientists, as a whole, NEVER renounce and reject a major theory, regardless of how good or how dire its "evidential fit", until an alternative presents itself.
To the best of my knowledge, there exists not a single precedent in the entire history of science where a major theory was declared to be false and abandoned, even when known to be in conflict with observation (i.e., evidence), in the absence of a new bandwagon for the relevant scientists to jump on.
What do you expect, after all? For scientists to do themselves out of a job?
And when such a "paradigm shift" occurs at all, it invariably occurs in a piecemeal manner; a gradual conversion process of individual scientists from old to new until the successor paradigm holds sway, the entire process often taking several decades. Also commonly seen is for a small cabal of die-hard defenders of the old theory going to their graves quite unconvinced by the virtues of the new.
Such a phenomenon puts the lie to simpleminded comments such as
"Faith in a theory? The theory works until some evidence refutes it, don't see where faith comes in"
"If you can disprove evolutionary theory, come forward an collect your Nobel Prize"
(Ignoring the further absurdity that there does not even exist a Nobel Prize for biology)
It may be the case that in a hundred, or two hundred, years from now we will be told that the theory of evolution, say, was long ago "disproven" (i.e., falsified), just as we're often told today that the theory of phlogiston was disproven.
This, I suggest, will be a rewriting of actual historical events.
As for now, NO MATTER WHAT evidence comes to light, -- a whole basketful of pre-Cambrian cuckoo fossils, say -- anyone expecting the entire community of evolutionary biologists to stand up en masse and declare their theory falsified can only be described as living in Cloud Cuckoo Land.
And, far more commonly seen, the same applies to anyone provoking a ToE skeptic to produce evidence that would cause the entire community of evolutionary biologists to stand up en masse and declare their theory falsified.
Fiendishly perspicacious as always, Australian philosopher David Stove, with the theory of inclusive fitness in mind, has this to say...
"Scientists sometimes (as is well known) continue to work with a theory which
they themselves know is false. Laymen, when they hear of such a case, are apt to
be audibly critical of the scientists' conduct; but of course they have no BETTER
theory to suggest, and the only result is, that the scientists grow angry and
impatient with their lay critics. But these features of scientists' behaviour are not
ones which deserve esteem, and still less, imitation. They are DEPARTURES FROM
rational behaviour, not forms of it. They arise only because professional scientists,
without the guidance of SOME theory however unsatisfactory, do not know what to
do with themselves. But laymen have other occupations, and the indignation they
feel, when scientists stick like limpets to a theory they know is false, is not only
natural but rational. A rational interest in science, as distinct from a professional
one, is an interest in what is true, or probably true, or probably close to the truth: in
that, and in nothing else. If a scientific theory is certainly not even NEAR the truth,
then, whatever attractions it may have for scientists, it is of no interest to a person
who is simply trying to have rational beliefs and no others. That is how things
actually stand, of course, with the theory (for example) that the blood is stationary,
or that the earth is shaped like a bullet, or that it rotates from east to west. It is also
how things actually stand with the theory of inclusive fitness.
When a proposition is obviously false, and is nevertheless widely and fervently
believed, it is a reasonable inference that it possesses some powerful attraction for
the minds of those who believe it: powerful enough, anyway, to outweigh its
obvious falsity. Take, for example, the theory that human beings are immortal. The
falsity of this proposition is obvious now, but it always was as obvious as it now is:
it is not as though we have lately discovered the first disproofs of this theory - we
have not. Yet it was generally believed in western Europe for most of two thousand
years, and (on the whole) was believed most fervently by precisely the people
whose intelligence and education best entitled them to rank as intellectual
authorities. What the attraction of the theory was in this case, is too obvious to need
The theory of inclusive fitness is in an analogous position nowadays, if what I
have said about it earlier in this essay is true. That is, it is obviously false, and is
nevertheless widely believed, and believed most fervently precisely by the people
best entitled to rank as authorities on evolutionary biology. It therefore must
possess some powerful attraction for the minds of those who believe it. But what is
Achilles942: Since David Stove brought up the theory of inclusive fitness (or kin selection), it might be worthwhile reflecting for a moment on why this theory was introduced in the first place, as well as its ramifications for falsification in science.
Let's remind ourselves first of claims typically made by defenders of Darwinian, or neo-Darwinian, theory:
C1: "The theory fits all the facts; no exceptions"
C2: "A theory is clung to only for so long as it is consonant with the facts/evidence. As soon as theory conflicts with facts/evidence, it has been falsified and must be abandoned."
Now back to ToE, the theory of evolution (or at least one version thereof)...
In its original, unadulterated form, with a species-wide, constant, ruthless struggle of all against all, survival of the fittest and all that, with selection acting on individual organisms, the existence of altruism presented an immediate and obvious objection to the theory, namely, there should be none. It's an objection that, needless to say, Darwin himself was well aware of.
Or, at the very least, whenever altruism dared to make an appearance, it should be immediately eradicated through the merciless winnowing of natural selection.
But the existence of altruism in many species, not least of all our own, is an obvious and incontrovertible fact.
Here, then, we have yet another case where facts -- or "observation" or "evidence" if you prefer -- are, prima facie, at odds with theory.
(I emphasize "prima facie" since, as I tried to make clear in the OP, rarely if ever in science does a situation arise where evidence flat out contradicts a theory. Appeal can always be made to "hidden variables", "unrecognized processes", etc.)
C1 above already begins to look less than convincing.
What to do, then? Well, here are some options for the scientist:
O1: In accordance with C2 and Sir Karl Popper's strictures, declare the theory falsified and reject it.
O2: Do nothing. Ignore the awkward evidence, perhaps hoping that someone smarter than oneself can come up with a patch. This is not at all unlike the state of many religious people who feel uncomfortable with the existence of both a benevolent God and so much evil in the world, yet continue to cling to their faith nonetheless.
O3: Find some way to reconcile the embarrassing (cf. "falsifying" ) evidence with theory -- exactly as Thomas Kuhn tells us is the main occupation of "normal science". In other words, put a patch on the puncture.
I know of no Darwinian who has ever chosen the path of O1, in this particular case, or any other similar case.
O2 is common enough in science as a whole.
As for O3... enter the theory of inclusive fitness.
Moral of the story once again is: theory being at odds with evidence is a run-of-the-mill phenomenon in science. Given that there is no such thing as a logical refutation in such matters, a judgement call has to be made between -- apart from doing nothing -- declaring the theory to be false, or doing everything in one's power to PREVENT a cherished theory from being falsified.
No prizes for guessing which route is almost invariably taken.