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The Logic of Scientific Discovery summary

Karl Popper

On the Epistemology of Modern Science

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    The Logic of Scientific Discovery
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    Scientists should use deduction not induction, and aim to falsify – not prove – their theories.

    Okay, to start with, let’s go back to those swans.

    On your walk back from your riverside stroll, you get to thinking. How are you going to explain your new findings that all swans are white to the world?

    It shouldn’t be too hard. The evidence is on your side. You took a limited and specific data set – four swans, in fact, practically a flock – and you drew a reasonable theory from it. Every swan you’ve seen has been white. So, therefore, it’s only natural, to theorize that all swans are white.

    It’s airtight, surely even Popper would be on your side.

    This is an example of inductive reasoning, or simply induction, and Popper opposes it strongly. The problem is that we’re using singular statements, like “This swan is white,” to prove universal statements, like “All swans are white.” Logically speaking, Popper argues this approach simply isn’t valid. It’s always possible that a black swan – or a pink one, or a yellow one – might have come swimming around that corner. That applies if you’ve seen four swans, or 40, or all the swans you can imagine. A black swan could always appear.

    Here’s a question, though: What would happen if a black swan actually did turn up? 

    Well, that would disprove the theory that all swans were white. So there’s an asymmetry to the logic here: specific statements can’t prove universal ones, but they can disprove them.

    That’s an important point when it comes to Popper’s preferred scientific method – known as deduction.

    Rather than starting with specifics, deduction starts with universals and examines the relationships between them to see what other logical conclusions can be drawn. You might say, for instance, that all birds can fly, and also that swans are birds – and hence, you can deduce that swans can also fly.

    That’s logically valid, Popper says, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily true. Rather, a good scientist would be constantly on the lookout for anything that goes against their hypothesis.

    They’d be looking to falsify their own theories. For instance, if they found out about a nonflying bird like a penguin. That specific case falsifies the general statement that all birds can fly.

    That shouldn’t be a disappointing result for a scientist: in fact, it should be exciting. It’s an intriguing new piece of information that will cause them to formulate a better, more accurate theory. Instead of “All birds can fly,” maybe it’s “All birds have wings.” And then, they’ll be looking everywhere for a bird with no wings to try and then falsify that statement.

    In this way, falsifiability is a big deal for Popper. It’s even what he calls the criterion of demarcation: the simple fact that distinguishes science from nonscience. A statement is only scientifically valid, he says, if it can potentially be falsified. Otherwise, you’re not dealing with science at all, but rather with something much vaguer: metaphysics.

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    What is The Logic of Scientific Discovery about?

    The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1935) is Karl Popper’s classic work on the purpose of science and knowledge. Scientists should test their theories not to verify them, but to falsify them, and hence become even more accurate.

    Who should read The Logic of Scientific Discovery?

    • Scientists interested in the big picture
    • Philosophers curious about scientific method
    • Logic lovers

    About the Author

    Karl Popper (1902–94) was one of the twentieth century’s major philosophers, specifically working on the philosophy of science. He began his career in Vienna, his birthplace, and emigrated first to New Zealand and then to the United Kingdom in the 1930s. As well as The Logic of Scientific Discovery, which he wrote while still in Vienna – although he revised it several times later on – another of his well-known works is The Open Society and Its Enemies.

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