Karl Popper for President

BY MATTHEW HERBERT

This is going to be tricky. First, Professor Popper is dead, which more or less disqualifies him to run for president. Second, he was born in Austria, which certainly and explicitly disqualifies him.

Still, Karl Popper had lots of something that is missing from public dialogue these days, something so important as to justify an immodest exception to the rules and traditions of running for president, I believe. This something is the will to seek knowledge through the elimination of non-knowledge. The current president and his advisors would not recognize this idea as a virtuous one if God Himself seared it directly into their brains with a holy epistemological laser gun.

So in the time I have today, I’d like to illustrate why Popper’s biggest idea is an important one and mount a brief critique of the current president in light of Popper’s idea.

NPG P370; Sir Karl Raimund Popper by Lucinda Douglas-Menzies
Karl Popper

When Popper was a young man at the University of Vienna, a certain strain of philosophy borrowed from science was all the rage, even invading the softer academic disciplines like history and sociology. Philosophers called it verificationism. It was the idea that any truth-aimed statement a pereson might make is meaningful only to the extent that one can verify the fact(s) that would make it true.

(The clunky phrase “truth-aimed” is meant to distinguish statements we make to describe potential facts, such as “Grass is green,” from the great variety of other utterances we make that are not meant to describe facts, for example, “Lord almighty!” or “Are you sure this is cheese?”)

In a nutshell, verificationism embodied the idea that even we non-scientists, carrying on in our fuzzy day-to-day lives, ought to aim for scientific rigor when it came to making factual claims. After all, we are trying to describe the same world scientists are, right?

But Popper noticed something a little off about verificationism. It did not actually reflect the way sicentists went about their work of turning hypotheses into knowledge. The way this actually worked was by a process of elimination. A scientist posits a hypothesis and designs an experiment to test for it. If her results are positive, she adds those results to a stack of facts that weigh in favor of her claim. But here’s the thing, and it’s a thing all scientists acknowledge: you can acquire corroborating evidence for your hypothesis till the cows come home, but you will never achieve certainty. That’s because, in the world of empirical fact-checking, there is always the possibility you will happen upon a negative result, something that disconfirms your hypothesis.

The flip side of this unsettling observation offers better news: disconfirming evidence is decisive. If you design an experiment to test for x and the result after  few tries is not x, you may state “x is not true” with a margin of confidence so comfortable it approaches certainty.

Popper called this idea scientific falsificationism, and it made him famous.

But the thing about falsificationism is that it runs contrary to human nature. As naturally as cheetahs sprint across the veldt in pursuit of zebras and do not poke about abstractly probing for non-zebras, we are likewise designed to seek evidence that confirms our hypothetical beliefs, and we race toward it in unreflective abandon, tongues lolling out the sides of our mouths.

There is a famous class of experiments that offers a glimpse into this side of ourselves. The details change slightly from case to case, but the basic outline is the same. Children are given a task of discovering an answer to a puzzle by choosing from a group of candidate answers, usually given in flashcards. Some of the candidate answers lead to a confirmatory chain of reasoning (i.e. that offers preliminary “right” answers) and some open up disconfirming chains of reasoning (preliminary “wrong” answers). What the kids don’t know is that the experimenters are actually measuring their emotional responses to the preliminary answers.

When the kids get confirmatory evidence they beam with pride and happiness. When they get disconfimring evidence they frown. This despite the fact that, the way the experiment is designed, the disconfirming evidence is equally valuable for solving the puzzle and arriving at the correct final answer.

If you think this is mere kids’ stuff, it is not. One of the most robust conclusions of cognitive psychology is the demonstration of what is now commonly known as the confirmation bias. Once we are on to a hypothesis, we are programmed to seek and pile on the evidence in its favor rather than looking for equally valuable disconfirming evidence. Yes, even in our 30s, 40s, or 50s, we are still that kid who wants to glow in the warmth of a “right” answer when the flashcard turns. No one is naturally good at the long game of rationality. It takes practice and determination.

My dad, however, was good at emulatinng Popper, as I suppose many mechanics are. When one of our cars had a problem, he invariably set about ruling out possible causes before homing in on what needed to be fixed. I did not understand this approach at the time and usually did not find out till after the repair what his working hypothesis was. I just stood by in a state of suspense as he ruled out false hypotheses, false candidates for the truth.

So, speaking of false candidates, do you know who is spectacularly lacking in Popperian falsificationism and is in fact imploding in a black hole of its opposite principle, confirmationism? You guessed it. By designating as “fake news” any information that might disconfirm its factual claims, the Trump administration has set itself up as the most powerful enemy of Popper’s idea in the history of, well, Popper’s idea. This is no mean feat if you believe, as I do, that Popper’s idea is the epistimeological engine of scientific enquiry. All the mirculous discoveries that make our lives a paradise of ever-advancing technology depend on the existence of an elite bunch of intellectual adventurers brave enough to seek out evidence that would prove them wrong. That’s how science is done.

Trump, on the other hand, insists there is nothing that could even in principle, prove him wrong when he makes factual claims. All evidence is confirmatory. If it doesn’t buttress ordinary facts of the kind that might interest you or me, it points to alternate facts, which are in some sense better than the “real” thing (where “real” means fake).

The problem is, in the world of policy, it is crucial to be able to assess one’s results and determine if one’s working hypothesis is more likely right or wrong. Take Trump’s idea of bombing the shit out of ISIS. Dressed up a bit, his working hypothesis is: applying greater military force will defeat ISIS. This, unfortunately, is an unfalsifiable hypothesis. Any feedback Trump gets from the field, even if apparently negative, will be interpreted to mean not enough military force has yet been applied.

Here is a sobering thought. Almost all of us raise our kids to be like Popper, not Trump. There’s a good reason for this. We want our kids to be able to process failure and incorporate feedback into a repertoire of beliefs that is continuously refined and enriched with better hypotheses. It’s called learning. When was the last time you saw a parent coaching their kid that he should commence shouting insults and bluster at the source of any inconvenient facts he encountered? No one–or, I hope no one–raises their kids to despise learning.

As usual, I find myself veering into a new direction and should therefore sign off for today, but please consider this in closing: there is probably a connection between Trump’s supporters’ disdain for science and their tendency to interpret Trump’s smirking evasions of inconvenient facts as wily victories over the purveyors of “fake news.” If you admire a man who patently cannot face facts, and if you take comfort in his ability to smear their authors, chances are you don’t care much for facts themselves.

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