Part of a Series of Excerpts from Prof. Sundar Sarukkai’s Book, ‘What is Science?’

We now continue from the last post, and summarize further points from the book.

Dr Sarukkai elaborates on the idea of science that Karl Popper, a famous philosopher used in his attempts to demarcate scientific hypotheses from non-scientific ones-

“Karl Popper’s idea of science was this: scientists make hypothesis and then deduce the consequences of these hypotheses. The hypotheses are such that they are open to being falsifiable, that is, open to being shown to be wrong. A good scientific assertion should allow for the possibility that it could be wrong and there should be ways to show how it is wrong.”

(Page 15)

He then argues against verifiability being the criterion for distinguishing scientific hypotheses from others-

“Popper’s argument was that verifiability is not a proper criterion for science. Very general statements can often be easily verified. Consider the prediction that it will rain. The prediction is always true since it will be raining somewhere or the other. Such statements are easily verifiable but are not really scientific statements. To qualify as one, there has to be more ’empirical content’. For example, the statement that ‘It is going to rain in Manipal’ is less general than ‘It is going to rain’ but still not very specific. This statement will be always true since it doesn’t say when it will rain in Manipal. But a statement like ‘It is going to rain in Manipal tomorrow at 11 am in front of the post office’ is an empirically strong statement. The strength of this statement is that it is open to being falsified, that is open to being shown to be wrong.”

(Page 15)

Dr. Sarukkai then offers some criticism of this idea-

“However, even with this view there are many difficulties. For one, scientists don’t do science this way. Many scientific experiments are often attempts to verify various claims. Another problem is that the relation between falsification and theories is far more complex than originally thought. Just because a consequence is falsified does not falsify the theory but only some elements in it. To discover which elements contribute to the problem is not an easy task. But in spite of these caveats, Popper’s view has been very influential, at least among practicing scientists.”

(Page 16)

He then sums up Popper’s attempts as follows-

While Popper’s claim about science could be seen as highlighting what is special to scientific method it was really inspired by his attempt to find criteria for demarcation between science and non-science. Falsifiability was used as the criterion which would help us judge whether something was a science or not. According to Popper, theories in physics were modelled on this aspect whereas in astrology or even psychology they were not based on falsifiability but on some general ideas of verifiability.

To read more about Karl Popper, click this link-

Science as Inquiry

“Inquiry is seen to be the most basic of the human faculties involved in the process of any learning, and particularly science learning. Science teachers and science organisations that promote the teaching of science often echo the above views on inquiry. They believe that this mode of inquiry is common to both the students of science as well as practicing scientists.”

“Questioning is not merely an attitude to doubt everything. Questions can be for clarification; they arise as part of an attempt to conceptualize, describe and so on.”

(Page 17)

“An important element of inquiry is the way it responds to authority. An inquiry should be impartial in the sense that it cannot be dictated by any kind of authority as far as its judgements are concerned.”

“Good science is indeed associated with the practice of constantly asking questions and not being satisfied with answers even if they are given by eminent scientists.”

“… the appropriation of this mode of inquiry as something special to science can be challenged on two counts: one, that this way of looking at the world is indeed a common practice in other non-science academic disciplines and in practices like art; and two, scientists do not necessarily exhibit this spirit in their day-to-day work of doing science.”

(Page 18)
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