Karl Popper and Falsifiability

Karl Popper the great philosopher of science said that for a fact to be scientific it had to be falsifiable, that it there had to be a basis that it could be proven false.

Today that is important because at least at the present time, there is no way that the multiverse can be proven not to exist, so it could not be considered a scientific fact under this definition.

There is another problem because under his falsifiability rule, Darwinian survival of the fittest could not be falsified, so it could not be considered a scientific fact. Popper later said that it theoretically could be falsified, but sadly it has not been demonstrated how this is so, so the definition of survival of the fittest has not been changed and falsifiability has yet to be scientifically demonstrated.

Was Popper right? Is falsifiability an integral part of science?

I would fully agree. The multiverse is currently not a scientific hypothesis/theory. What many scientists are trying to do is find a way to create a multiverse hypothesis.

Survival of the fittest could easily be tested. All you need to do is see if deleterious mutations propogate at the same rate as beneficial mutations. For example, plate a mixture of antibiotic sensitive and resistant bacteria on a plate containing antibiotics and then screen the allele makeup of the population that grows on the plate.

When it comes to any ultimate decision regarding the scale of the cosmos, we and science are in possession of no facts whatsoever. We have good reason to think we know some things about the region defined by the expansion of one singularity. If we ask about what lies before or beyond that event and its fallout, all we have is speculation.

The speculation that the visible universe is all there is is no more privileged than the speculation that the local bang is one of many. All we know and possibly all we will ever know is at least this one expansion of a singularity exists.

Popper’s arguments about falsifiability should be expanded to include the notion that hypotheses are tested in bundles. For a hypothesis to result in a prediction, several other assumptions need to be made - that the instruments one are using are working correctly, that the system one is about to study corresponds to the kind of system described by one’s hypothesis, etc. If one reaches a “falsifying result” of one’s test, one needs to decide whether to jettison one’s hypotheses or one of the auxiliary assumptions.

An example: Newton’s laws enabled scientists to calculate the orbits of planets, and these orbits corresponded beautifully to those orbits that were observed. Except for one planet: Uranus - which at that time was considered the outermost planet - had an orbit that did not follow the orbit predicted by Newton’s laws at all.

If the scientists at the time had behaved like “good popperians”, they should have rejected Newton’s laws in the face of this obvious falsification.

But they did not. Because Newton’s laws exhibited so much explanatory power, they instead chose to jettison their assumption that Uranus was the outermost planet. Instead, they hypothesized that a planet existed beyond Uranus, its gravity disturbing the orbit of Uranus.

Lo and behold! A more distant planet turned out to exist, right where Newton’s laws predicted it would be. Today we call that planet Neptune.

The conclusion: Evaluating a theory is more complex than simply looking at a single attempted falsification. The overall explanatory power of a theory needs to be taken into account before it is rejected, and this is a subjective evaluation. What one researcher considers a thoroughly falsified theory another will consider a sound theory “which still has some unanswered questions”. Conventional evolutionary biology is a view with immense explanatory power and will not be disproven by any single observation.

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The other exception was Mercury which had a measurable precession in its orbit that Newton’s laws did not predict. Along came Einstein with his theory of relativity which predicted a relatively large precession in Mercury’s orbit. Einstein’s theory also predicted that precession increases as the distance to the Sun decreases, and this was confirmed with more accurate measurements through the years which confirmed a precession in the orbit of all planets.

While Newton’s laws are very accurate in many situations, they do give the wrong answers in the presence stronger gravitational forces and at higher velocities.


Exactly. Falsifiability doesn’t need to be all or nothing in all cases. If a theory doesn’t completely suceed in its predictions but is still good for the vast majority of them, we are probably better off assuming it is incomplete rather than completely wrong, and stick to it in lack of a better one. That being said, I don’t think that is the case for evolution, there are some (minor) things we don’t know yet, but they are not wrong predictions, just lack of knowledge for some minor details

EDIT: For instance, I don’t believe either general relativity or quantum mechanics will be proven to be completely wrong, even if something is definetely wrong in their incompatibility in some situations, we will probably only come to find that they were incomplete in the light of a unified theory (if we ever get one).

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With evolution, it is a matter of finding new mechanisms that have to be incorporated into the theory, and these new mechanisms haven’t required us to jettison the mechanisms we have already found. For example, discovering that the majority of the genome evolves through neutral drift did not require us to jettison natural selection in functional DNA. Horizontal genetic transfer did not require us to throw out predictions based on vertical inheritance.


“Survival of the fittest” was not Darwin’s original term for Natural selection. Darwin said that inheritable traits that allowed individuals to survive longer to reproduce, or to produce more offspring, would come to predominate in a population. This is self-obvious, so it hardly needs to be proved, although it could be done easily.
Most traits have both positive and negative effects, so the final mix of “best” traits is hard to predict.

Larry, thank you for your response. You are right, survival of the fittest were not Darwin’s original words, but he accepted them and used them to describe natural selection in the second edition of The Origin.

What he said was that based on the population theories of Thomas Malthus that because population grew geometrically, while the food supply at best grew arithmetically, there was severe pressure on individuals to struggle for limited food resources and this struggle would determine which alleles would survive and reproduce.

Even though it might some self-obvious, many facts that appear to self-obvious are not true. That is the purpose of science, to verify information to make sure it is true and I would argue that it has not been done and it is not true.

Survival of the fittest says that reality is a minus sum game and it is not. In fact when people or ants work together to share resources, everyone benefits and not just the few fittest. Dawkins confuses predation with natural selection when it is not a struggle for scarce resources. Extinction is usually not caused survival of the fittest, but by the loss of habitant.

If you think that you can demonstrate that natural selection is caused by survival of the fittest, you are welcome to try.

Darwin picked “Survival of the fittest” for evolution because his scientist friends pointed out that “Natural selection” implied a “Natural Selector,” a non-scientific concept. (Does that sound a lot like current arguments over Intelligent Design?)
“Survival of the fittest” is often taken to mean a global “King of the Mountain,” where all life is a desperate struggle for existence, with only one final victor. It can also imply that final victory goes to the physically strongest. Evolution is more like “Paper, Rock, Scissors,” where no strategy predominates. Predators that become too efficient will run out of prey, and prey that become too difficult to catch will overpopulate and starve themselves into extinction. We humans are not born the fastest or strongest species on earth, but our superior brains have enabled us to predominate. Our brains have also allowed us to design weapons of mass destruction capable of destroying all of life.
The ultimate goal of evolution is balance, not isolated victory. An early criticism of Survival of the Fittest was that the term is a tautology–the ones that survive are by definition those most fit to survive. Darwin’s theory is not about survival, but about the effect that survival or non-survival has on succeeding generations. Many strategies work to insure that a species will survive-- reproduce faster, hide from predators, run faster, grow
bigger and stronger, develop fangs and claws, live in shells, or cooperate with others. Natural selection is not a hypothesis, but an observation of what happens in nature.

I’d prefer to say balance is the ultimate result of evolution rather than using a word as loaded as “goal”?

I suppose there is always an element of luck and once in a while an organism might succeed in passing along its genes while another seemingly better adapted individual may get taken out by a predator simply because the predator’s route led to the fitter individual and away from the lucky survivor. But then evolution isn’t really about individual results so much as trends and genomes.

Darwin modeled Natural Selection on Artificial Selection which has been long practiced in English agriculture. Natural Selection was something that Nature did, but the issue was that humans select the animals and crops they want based on rational criteria. Nature supposedly does not, but that is not true and this is the problem.

Survival of the fittest, per Huxley, caught the imagination of the English who were busy proving they were fittest by extending their empire throughout the world. Also survival of the fittest was “natural” because it was not rational. These I think is still the reasons why it persists.

That is true specifically, but not generally. Natural Selection selects in those alleles what are best adapted to their environment. E. O. Wilson has pointed out that social animals have the advantage over non-social, but this is relative. Human beings have the overall advantage because we have advantages not only in our genes, but also in our social skills, and esp… in our minds.

We can see how the ability to adapt and work together with nature rather than against nature is the key to survival and flourishing not only for us, but for plants, insects, and all sorts of creatures. When we read new books like A World from Dust by Ben McFarland we see how then history of life is a well constructed process, not as haphazard affair that Survival of the fittest would have.

Other than create human beings, the observer in the Anthropic Theory, Evolution and Ecology appear to have the result In diversity, which is counter to Western thinking.

The unavoidable conclusion is that there will be winners and losers. There will be some individuals who have more grandchildren than others. As Darwin discussed, the winners and losers are determined, in part, by their phenotypes.

That implies that the individuals who don’t cooperate don’t have as many offspring. That is natural selection.

There aren’t enough resources for every individual to have as many offspring as they can, and the same applies for the next generation. There are limited resources, therefore it is a zero sum game. There will be winners and losers.

What about the extinction of alleles? Why do we see some alleles but not others? For example, the allele for sickle cell anemia in humans is found in areas with endemic malaria, but not outside of those areas. Why? How do you explain this?

I’ll stick around here. I have to give a class on falsifiability and I may find some interesting stuff here.

Falsifiability is basically simple. It says that a scientific theory must not only explain something, but also contain the way to determine that it is false. For instance evolution can be falsified by showing that human beings and apes did NOT come from a common ancestor, so evolution is falsifiable. On the other hand multiverse theory is based on math
and not experimentation. It cannot be falsified and therefore according to Popper’s understanding of science is not valid.

In terms of Darwinian Natural Selection it was defined as the result of the Survival of the Fittest. Because there was no underlining explanation as to what makes an allele fit or fitter, there is no way to falsify this theory. All we can say is that the fittest or the fitter will survive and flourish while the less fit will not. How does one construct a field study or experiment to prove or not prove that?

The problem as I see it is caused by history. The cause of natural selection is ecology, but ecology is a relatively new concept. Evolution as we know it was born with the Origin of the Species, while ecology gained public attention with Earth Day in the US in 1970. Thus evolution was well entrenched and embattled long before ecology brought its point of view to biological science.

Naturalists in the 1930s observed that mice found on the lava rocks were typically melanic, while those on the surrounding sand-colored granite rocks were usually light-colored. This color-matching between fur color and habitat background appears to be an adaptation against predators, particularly owls. Mice that are color-matched to their surroundings have a survival advantage over mismatched mice in each of the two habitats. . . .
from media.hhmi.org/biointeractive/activities/pocketmouse/Mouse_Natural…

This article on the internet explains how the ecology can alter the genes of a common rodent. It explains that naturalists have observed that there are more black colored mice where the background is black and more light brown mice where the background is light brown sand. If this relationship can be verified than it show how natural selection can be falsified and verified by the connection of flora and fauna to their ecological niches. .

This assumes that every individual needs to have as many offspring as they can, which is false speculation. In reality nature seeks to have a comfortable balance between population and resources.

Again the those plants and animals who have the best balance and make the most efficient use of resources or the environment who are most successful and this benefits all, not just themselves. This model is the opposite of Survival of the Fittest and the Selfish Gene, just as Survival of the Fittest and the Selfish Gene is the opposite of Symbiosis which is the basis of Ecology

Clearly sickle cell is an adaptation to the environment. It gives those with this trait protection against malaria, even though it gives those with a double version of this trait sickle cell anemia. It is the result of an adaption, not struggle for scarce resources.

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Careful. Is belief in God falsifiable? If not, I don’t think that makes it invalid, it just makes it a bad science hypothesis.

The way I see it is: If you can make a scientific experiment/hypothesis to answer something, by all means, do it! However, there are some questions for which you can’t do it, either because we still don’t have the knowledge or technology to do so or because it is actually impossible. In those cases all we can do is use the next best option: philosophy. It is not as reliable as science, but it is the best we can do. Some people dislike philosophy and think it is a waste of time for not giving conclusive answers, and I can respect that. But that is no reason to be hostile to people who like to think about these matters or to say that a conclusion reached through philosophy is necessarily wrong, the most accurate would be to say: It COULD be right, but we have no way of knowing that.

Well said.

I think of philosophy as where new ideas go to get sorted out. Ultimately a lot of questions about consciousness will be resolved as physiology, but in the mean time philosophy is generally where all the mucking around looking through a glass darkly goes on.

But it is doubtful that every aspect of consciousness will be mapped very finely to biochemical processes, and even if it were we would still want to know whether the consciousness was constrained or enabled by it. Leastwise that is my opinion. Surely there is an aspect of consciousness which correlates with the soul, whatever ultimate metaphysical status one may attach to that. There will probably never be a science of literature or of aesthetics or of values which is considered definitive to the degree that there is no further need of creative endeavor. At least lets hope not.

An important part of Popper’s role was to separate science from theology and philosophy. If we were to open the doo0rs to speculation based on the multiverse concept, the would destroy that barrier and make reconciliation between philosophy, theology, and science impossible, thus severely crippling the intellectual foundation of human civilization.

The rules for proof and verification for science are different from theology and philosophy. Science demands verifiable physical evidence. Theology and philosophy allow for logical and theological evidence. That does not mean that this kind of evidence cannot be verified, but this must be done a different way.

An good example is the fact that the Fundamentalists and successors decided that Gen 1 must be understand as the Literal Word of God. This was a theological decision and a bad one at that, but it has scientific repercussions for those who think this way. The thing is Fundamentalists are not open to other understanding of how the creation took place until this understanding of scripture is changed. The problem is not scientific, but theological.

Belief in God is falsifiable, because if God did not exist the universe would not be rational. Since the universe is rational, God does exist. On the other hand belief in God cannot be disproven, for the same reason know the sun exists that belief in the existence in the sun cannot be disproven, because God exists and the sun exists, because I cannot exist without the sun. The same with God and the universe . But these are not scientific proofs.

Brian, you are right. Science does not have all the answers. We need to use philosophy and theology also. Part of the problem is that science has claimed that the physical world is the source of all the answers, which is wrong headed.

We need to fix philosophy and theology, but for some reason people are not interested in that.

If there are alleles that cause individuals to have more offspring compared to others in their population then those alleles will come to dominate the population.

That means alleles which result in less effeciency and less cooperation will be selected against, correct?

So why don’t we find that allele outside of areas with endemic malaria? What is stopping the spread of this allele to the rest of the human population?