Can You Prove A Scientific Fact? No, Said Popper

I remember Karl Popper (1902- 1994) from my time doing a PhD at The London School of Economics and Political Science (the famous LSE). He used to give lectures on political philosophy which attracted great crowds of students. He was a rather wizened, bald-headed character with a thick Austrian accent, very forceful.

One thing I took away from his classes was his strong assertion that a scientific fact, or theory, could not be proved. Hypotheses could be advanced, but could not be proved. They could only be disproven. Science, he said, was a constant process of thinking up hypotheses from the available data, then systematically testing them. If they held up, so far so good. That could be taken as the given “truth” as long as it was not disproven.

This “falsification” principle would become a leading paradigm until it itself was challenged by new philosophers (such as Thomas Kuhn). Popper welcomed such debate. This was what science should be about.

Is Changing the Culture the Golden Key to Progress?

Students of human evolution have long argued that it has long been powered, not by natural selection, but mainly by “social evolution”. Humans can emancipate themselves through cultural change, which accumulates knowledge and passes it on directly to descendants via education. Traditions are built up ” which may take the form of superstition, myth, doctrine, or rite, or may be codified by law or taught as recognised academic knowledge. In the span of human culture, these external bodies of formalised information form a second tier that overlays the message of our genes… But we must be aware that in such a system it is risky to remove elements arbitrarily, even those that are apparently bad, for they are part of a coherent system of a complexity comparable to that of our instinctive behaviour patterns. They are so intricately linked that pulling out one brick may topple the entire structure. Anthropologists rightly warn against subjecting primitive tribes to ‘culture shock’. A culture is not easily directed from without, but can be all too easily destroyed – and the humanity of man, deprived of its supporting culture, is destroyed with it”.

Alec Nisbett (1976).

Civilized Man’s 8 Deadly Sins

The founder of modern ethology (the study of animal behaviour) wrote this in 1973:

“All the advantages that man has gained from his ever-deepening understanding of the natural world that surrounds him, his technological, chemical and medical progress, all of which should seem to alleviate human suffering … tends instead to favour human destruction”

Konrad Lorenz, Civilized Man’s 8 Deadly Sins (1973)

This from a scientist who generally described himself as an optimist !