Falsification

/ Reason Group /
@ K. 2000 07 05

Falsification is the heart and soul of science.

Everything that has been thoroughly falsified —
the falsification failing —
May be regarded as provisionally true.
Everything that hasn’t been thoroughly falsified
should be regarded as probably false.

If your models of reality don’t well map reality, don’t jibe smoothly with experience, make better models, redraft your maps: from scratch if necessary.

This wisdom is not natural to human individuals. Science is rare. No individual can be a “scientist” 100% of the time.
This wisdom is anathema to societies. Societies routinely stretch the bottom of their budget to buttress beliefs that have bumped against experience. Where the university has invested in Newtonian physics, it will resist relativity. Where the university has invested in relativity physics, it will resist quantum incompatibility. Where the Temple has elected its Sanhedrin, it will resist Christ. And where the Temple has accepted the rule of Caesar (and which temple has not?) it will compromise. Caiaphas can interrupt and contradict Jesus, Pilat can judge Jesus without any obligation to demonstrate understanding of what Jesus says: only what Caesar says.


The middle part of the previous paragraph instantly distanced the religious, the latter part alienated the scientists. That’s tough, I hold to the relationship, the apotheosis of reason doesn’t suspend homeostasis.

Besides, Michael Behe claims that most scientists do believe in god (the god of order, the god of design), and I suspect that Behe is right: in more than one thing.

Anyone still here: please understand: I use Christ as a symbol, and Jesus too. There’s no dogma in my meaning. There’s a little bit of “Christ” in any revolutionary, any ugly duckling, anyone blocked from the table. I don’t mean that there is an independent thing, immortal, infallible, and 100% a Christ. And I certainly don’t mean that a man called Jesus and crucified two thousand years ago was the only one to try to upgrade a church, a culture, and get kicked in the face.

Science too is based in belief, but science contrasts with religion in that science is supposed to welcome new maps whereas churches are fortified against review.


The Wason Test illustrates the matter with efficiency: Human beings naturally look for examples in support of their ideas. Modern reason supports this tendency. Modern reason however also adds a requirement that is not natural to our species: falsification. Peter C. Wason designed a simple test which illustrates the principle better than any prose I’ve yet encountered.

Peter C. Wason
thanx stambulvezzani

Imagine that the tester has a deck of cards. He places four of them on a table before you. The faces of the four read:

A D 4 7

You are told a rule claimed for the stack. “If a card has a vowel on one side, then it has an even number on the other side.” Your challenge, given just the four cards in front of you, is to say

A) which cards, if any, must be turned over to test the validity of the rule?

B) why?

The best answer will identify the minimum number: nothing missing, nothing extraneous. (Notice that the sample cards are not random but are an algebra of representation. Any possible card from the stack, if indeed the stack relates to the rule, is logically represented by the four samples: vowel / consonant; even number / odd number.)

Of Wason’s one hundred twenty-eight college graduate candidates, only five got it right. Furthermore, a number of those who didn’t failed likewise to understand the answer once given. I have showed this test to a number of people and my percentage of right answers thus far is worse than Wason’s. When I first saw the test (in Morton Hunt’s Universe Within), I was wrong for a good several seconds before I saw it, and, I confess, that occurred chronologically well after the moment claimed in my biographical narratives for my conversion from faith in a magical universe to a recognition of and admiration for modern reason. As I say in the module referred to, no one is rational all the time (and no one is perfectly rational, ever!) (and reason isn’t, and never will be, fully, perfectly evolved!).

But of course I’ve already given the key to the answer: falsifiability. Let’s consider each of the candidate cards in turn.

Card #1: A. Yes it does have to be checked. If it has an even number on the other side, that one card supports the rule. We turn it to confirm the rule. A proof must have evidence on its side. If the A card has an odd number on the verso, then the rule is refuted.

Card #2: D. This card does not need to be turned. The rule says nothing about cards with letters other than vowels. The D card is irrelevant to the rule in question.

Card #3: 4. This card also does not have to be turned. The rule restricts what may be opposite a vowel; the rule does not restrict what must be opposite an even number. The 4 card too is irrelevant to the rule in question.

Card #4: 7. Yes. If the verso of the 7 card has a vowel, then the rule is false. The A must be turned as part of the process of confirming the rule: the 7 must be turned to falsify the rule. Confirmation is only half of the process.

Did you learn this reasoning in school? Neither did I. Did you learn it in Church? Not likely. Do you imagine that your science teacher could answer it correctly? I don’t. Schools in a democracy reflect and reinforce the errors of the majority.
(Schools in a tyranny reflect and reinforce the errors of the ruling class.) Has there ever been a school that represented reason? None that I’d name with confidence. Is MIT or Cal Tech or Stanford an exception? It would be easy to find confirming evidence, but are you welcome to investigate all evidence to falsify it? Nobel Laureate Murray Gell-Mann says he achieved his Ph.D. in physics at Yale without having learned the essence of science. He reports that it was at MIT that he learned it, but he was at the time in a post-doc program and it was an individual he learned it from, not the institution. He witnessed something rare: a scientist, confronted with evidence falsifying his theory, changed his mind! Right in front of his colleagues!


The Wason Test has been discussed at my home page for upwards of five years now: nearly the entire life of the home page [b. 1995]. It’s long overdue for it’s own module. Meantime references have budded in a number of other modules.


Food for Thought

Today the following arrived from James Winter, HUM.net, UCLA:

I happened across your page with the Wason Test. I’m not quite sure
what your remarks about it concerning falsifiability are (though I am
familiar with Popper’s criterion of falsifiability for science), but, as
I understand the test, it is not presented correctly.

Perhaps I missed it, but the ’tester’ is supposed to specify that each card you see on the table has a letter on one side and a number on the
other. Then you are told the rule and asked which cards need to be
turned over in order to see if the rule is complied with.

In your example, then, the cards that would have to be turned over would
be the ’A’ card and the ’7’ card (which is what you say as well — but your explanations for why this is so seem a bit confused to me). Anyway, this test is used by psychologists interested in rationality,
and is supposed to be evidence for one way in which humans
systematically reason irrationally. What the test actually tests for is
one’s ability to understand conditional statements (like the rule for the
cards). The most common way of misunderstanding a conditional is to
treat it as a biconditional (if and only if, rather than if).

You may know this, but Popper’s criterion of falsifiability (as a
criterion for whether a theory should be counted as scientific, or as a
criterion for acceptance of a theory) has major difficulties, well
recognized by philosophers of science. For most scientists themselves,
however, who are familiar at all with philosophy of science, still
(unfortunately) think Popper got it right. (They would do well to keep
up with the times!)

Hey! How come no one else has challenged me since? Do I have it right? Have I kept up with the times? (Are the times necessarily right?) Urges for new modules militate against my perfecting older siblings.

I’ll be back to comment once I’ve finished wrestling with still another new introduction at Macroinformation. For the moment I observe that I’ve alluded to the Wason Test in many places at pk domains.


Yesterday I went Wason surfing again and found hundreds of entries, one of which discussed a variant of the four card problem in terms of traditional logic. I couldn’t follow the damn argument: it was written in “logic,” not in plain English. I’m well aware of the importance of artificial languages and specialized disciplines. My Macroinformation discusses the topic at growing length. If survival requires virtuosity on the violin then we should all start fiddling, knowing that failure means not even Heifitz will have grandchildren. But I insist that mastery of formal logic isn’t necessary. Simple English can do it. Forget the goddam Aristotelian syllogisms and just absorb Popper / Wason: pick up the habit of seeing things in terms of falsifiability. Reverse your field with regard to the idea of “proof.” Know that all talk of proof
that doesn’t constantly refer to relevant tautologies is fraud: the practice of magician-priest-confidence men performing routine illusions for jossers whose principle will is to be fooled.


2011 02 16
“Falsify” Is Ambiguous!

In the context of science, of epistemology, of reason the word “falsify” means to test for falsehood. The same word more normally means to tamper with so as to mislead: “the embezzler falsified the books.”

Thus the term can appear on either side of truthfulness. The Biblical scribes who altered the female names of powerful early Christian leaders who changed the copy to read as male names, erasing evidence of the status of some females, falsified the Bible. Biblical scholars discovering this falsification are also falsifying the Bible: in a completely opposite sense. The uncorrected Bible is a false record. (And corrected, we still don’t know how false it is!)


Notes

Opaque Majority:
3.9% got it right: some portion of the balance, all educated, couldn’t understand why the right answer was right. My neighboring piece on semiotics, semantics, and most especially Korzybski’s map / territory distinction refers to Gregory Bateson’s report that psychologists have found the species at large incapable of making this basic semiotic distinction. I quote part of my note there:

I wish I had a million dollars so I could offer it as a prize to anyone who could devise a test for map/territory distinctions as clear, simple, and compelling as the Wason Test. Give the two tests together as a double barreled blast against Homo sapiens sapiens’ self-description.
K. Teaching Thinking Tools Reason

About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
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