Reading The Logic of Scientific Discovery with Arunima Jha

This is the post about my Current Read - The Logic of Scientific Discovery by the philosopher Karl Popper.






Picture this, it's a lovely morning in your small hometown and you decided to go for a short stroll along the river. As you walk in, soaking up the warm summer, a beautiful swan comes swimming around the nearest bend, and look there's another swan and then another. You being under the scientific sword notice a common theme that all of these swans are white and because these are the first swans you see, you formulate a little theory. All swans must be white. Then almost, right on to you, the fourth swan turns up, hold your guns, it is also white. That proves that this theory is slowly becoming a fact but then something else crosses your mind. hold on, the fifth swan that turns up won't be black or pink? It's' impossible to discount that possibility, however unlikely it is. Huh! And here you thought you were just going for an uncomplicated walk in the sunshine yet unwittingly, now surrounded by these large number of swans you stumbled across one of the trickiest questions in the 20th century. How can we ever truly prove a theory to be correct?




Now, how are you going to explain your new findings that all swans are white to the world? I mean it shouldn't be too hard, the evidence is on your side i.e. the data of four swans -practically a flock & you drew a reasonable theory from it. It's airtight, who would disagree with you? The problem here is that you're using a singular statement i.e. "this swan is white" to prove a universal statement i.e. "all swans are white".


So, here's a question, what would happen if a black swan did turn up? So, there's a bit of asymmetry to the logic here, specific statements cannot prove the universal ones but they can disprove them and that's the important point when it comes to Popper's preferred scientific method which is known as deductions. Rather than starting with specifics, deductions start with universals and examine the relationship between them to find out what other logical conclusions might be drawn? You might say that all birds can fly, swans are birds and hence you can deduce swans can therefore fly. That's logically valid, Popper says but that does not mean it is necessarily true. Rather a good scientist would be constantly on the lookout for anything that goes against their hypothesis. They will be looking to falsify their hypothesis and that shouldn't be a disappointing result for a scientist it should be exciting. It's an intriguing new piece of information that would help them to draw a more accurate theory.


It's a bit like how a Jury works in Court. A Jury is asked to determine what happened in a particular case, all it has to go on is the available evidence in that case and the pre-existing set of rules i.e. the Law. The Jury's verdict is accepted as fact but of course, if more evidence would have come to light, they might have reached a different verdict.


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