Weekend reflections

This open thread last weekend started off with a whimper, but turned into an interesting discussion about why nothing was happening on the thread! How’s that for naval gazing!   Anyway, a long time ago when I put on a sketch as an undergraduate at Burgmann College Robin Bell the Staff Tutor said to me “That was good Nick.   Surprisingly good!”

Likewise the open thread turned out to be surprisingly good.   Here’s another one.   Actually I might just whip into the comments section right now and get it going.

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82 Responses to Weekend reflections

  1. Rafe started a bit of excitement on John Quiggin’s blog last weekend, by asking some pointed questions of John. So here are a few for Rafe.

    Karl Popper became very popular amongst the cream of the top American economists in the 1950s. Both Samuelson and Friedman published methodological pieces praising ‘falsificationism’. I think Rafe now regards both American economists I’ve mentioned to have a pretty crude understanding of Popper. I wonder though what Popper thought? I think he made some relatively low key comments explaining some of the finer points of why he was not a positivist. But he was still pretty much associated with them I thought.

    So my question to Rafe is this:

    1. What steps did Popper take to distance his views from theirs at the time, and if his efforts were pretty low key, why wasn’t he more strident in distancing him from them?
    2. If his response was pretty mild, should we take it from this that he was pretty sympathetic to the way they were using his work?
    3. Do you think he felt that any errors in their interpretation of his work might jeopardise the quality of their economics?

    Well, that was three questions.

  2. Gaby says:

    Well a few of us are worried the Jesuits amy turn up over on the papal cant thread…

    But then again given the Pope’s seeming interest in revising the methodology and philosophy of scince It may bob up here with all of its “main weapons”…

    Good questions Nicholas for weekend reflection. But hard.

    For clarity, you may want to expand a little on what you think are the salient aspects of positivism.

    For expample, I don’t think that Popper subscribed to a verificationist criterion of meaning. And his demarcation principle cannot be reasonably interpreted as such.

    I don’t know what Popper said abut economics but I think it would provide an interesting test of his philosphy given the nature of “observation” in economics and its status and use in the “basic statements” of his theoory of falsification.

  3. Chris Lloyd says:

    Nick: You and Rafe are no doubt in the loop on this discussion. But I would find a two paragraph background of use. To whit: why is Popper a significant figures for right wingers? I encountered him briefly 20 years ago in a philosophy of science course but his ideas were presented completely apolitically.

  4. Jason Soon says:

    Chris –

    Popper himself was a social democrat though he was involved in the foundation meeting of the classical liberal Mont Pelerin Society which was founded by Hayek. But in those days of the Cold War, classical liberals were happy to have anti-communist leftists in their circles and that was basically where Popper stood. His work The Open Society and its Enemies is regarded as a critique and expose of what was regarded as the totalitarian tendencies of Marx and Plato and therefore a sort of standard bearer for arguments against the concept of Social Engineering which was in those days regarded as a tenet of the Left. But I stress Popper himself I think never strayed from Social Democracy, though he did dedicate one of his books to Hayek, who ended up being a close friend (this was mainly because it was Hayek who helped get Popper out of the kiling fields of those days and into the UK.

  5. Rafe Champion says:

    Nicholas, a partial reply to your questions.

    I am not aware that he took any notice of their views and his attitude to economics has been rather interesting and hard to fathom. He attended the Karl Menger (son of) and Richard Mises (brother of) seminars in Vienna which were mostly on mathematics and probability. He was so impressed by a paper on mathematical economics (possiblyl by Morgenstern) that he thought the social sciences might have reached the Galileo stage and he encouraged Colin Simkin to persist with his maths (as did John Hicks who was also a close long-term friend of Simkin). I think that turned out to be a bum steer. After Simkin died (we meet most weeks for over a decade) his colleague Warren Hogen said Colin had a grand long-term project on econometrics that never worked. Colin never mentioned it to me.

    Popper was so obsessed with topics that interested him that other issues hardly existed and as far as I can make out he never paid serious attention to economics apart from advice that he took from Simkin for The Open Society and inconclusive discussions with Hayek where he held back from non-interventionism. His 1963 Harvard lecture on explanation in the social sciences is a mess, with the rationality principle variously described as indispensable, tautologous, empty and quite often false.

    I will contact some of his research assistants from the 1950s to the 1970s and see if they can shed any light on your questions.

  6. Gaby says:

    Chris, I think some of the reasons must involve Popper’s critique of Hegel and Marx in “The Open Society and its Enemies” as well as of totalitarianism in general, his attack on “historicism”, and his advocacy of piecemeal against holistic social engineering.

  7. Gaby says:

    Sorry should have checked the thread.

  8. But first and foremost, it was Popper’s mastery of flaming – and flame-baiting. Those footnotes to OSE really belong in an on-line forum or on a blog comments thread.

  9. Gaby says:

    Ah yes of course Gummo. Forgot about those “footnotes”. Some of them are mini-essays! Contain a mass of learning and argument.

  10. Ken Parish says:

    In Googling in an attempt to make sense of this discussion (as a non-economist), I came across a paper titled Defence of Absurd Theories in Economics:

    Are all economists quite mad? The common and long-standing claim that they believe in the continuing real-world existence of general equilibrium, flawlessly profit-maximising firms and

  11. Gaby,

    Those footnotes are pretty amazing aren’t they? Gilbert Ryle, in his review of the book particularly admired the apercus on Wittgenstein (Pooper starts those in the Heraclitus section of the Plato Volume, but doesn’t really let rip until well into footnotes to the Aristotle volume).

  12. Ken,

    The point you raise is central to one of the main things that is wrong with economics. Friedman got this debate going in the 1950s by claiming (I’m pretty sure influenced by an interpretation of Popper’s falsificationism), that it didn’t matter that your assumptions might be unrealistic, what mattered was whether they predicted events. That’s one of Popper’s great themes of course and his demarcation criterion beteween sciece (Einstein’s Genergal Theory had made certain predictions which had turned out to be vindicated by observations – I think in 1919) and pseudo-science like Marxism and Psychoanalysis.

    Friedman was (rightly in my view) arguing along with other Chicago economists like George Stigler, for the efficacy of assuming perfect competition in models (without for a moment suggesting that imperfect competition didn’t exist or should never be modelled or thought about). The commonsensical defences of this position are that
    1. Modelling imperfect competition involves a bunch of methodological compromises in itself, most notably and particularly then, that models don’t generate any determinate answer – they just diappear into complications.
    2. Perfect competition is an ‘essence’ of a particular process at work in the economy and so, although we should always be on our guard against the fact that their answers will always be (slightly?) wrong, at least they will help us get near the answer and help us think through the issues in a disciplined way.

    The analogy Friedman used – and no doubt it had been used before – is with physicists ignoring friction when thinking about the motion of bodies. It’s not that they think it doesn’t exist – they just want to abstract from its complications (at least for a while and “for argument’s’ sake”) while they work through the issues.

    I think this is a good defence of the use of perfect competition.

    Unfortunately the idea got taken a lot further than that. The discipline spends less and less time carefully considering the critical issues of how useful various abstractions are and more and more time just going ahead and making them and getting publications by reporting on them.

    Of course I’m not arguing that somewhat odd assumptions should be stopped, where they’re necessary to allow analysis. But if they’re pretty arbitrary, it’s important that that be understood at the start and the finish. They may be useful, but there’s a good chance that their results are not very general. But the discipline behaves with scant regard for these considerations.

    Thus for instance, in the mid 1980s two economists Brander and Spencer (I think they were married to each other but I digress!) showed that an industry-specific export subsidy could be beneficial for a nation which was host to a firm which was a Cournot competitor against a foreign firm. (A Cournot duopolist seeks to maximise its profits by taking its competitor’s level of sales as given.) Krugman reports that this “idea” generated a “flurry of excitement”.

    Goodness knows why. The scope for governments to intervene on behalf of their own firms in monopolistic markets is pretty obvious – you can help your firms get hold of some monopoly rent. The real questions are practical ones – can you devise policies that will systematically do that? Turns out it’s very very hard to do even at a technical level, and that’s before Alan Jones has taken a bit of cash for comment and politicians try to distort the policies to serve some special interest.

    The next year Eaton and Grossman (who were almost certainly not married to each other – but again this is irrelevant to my point) published an analogous model in which duopolists acted according to Bertrand rather than Cournot assumptions. (A Bertrand duopolist maximises its profit by taking its competitor’s price as opposed to its output as given.) This change of assumption reverses the Brander and Spencer conclusion making the optimal policy an export tax! It is hard to know what to make of all this given that both Cournot and Bertrand assumptions about duopolists are themselves fairly crude mathematical makeshifts rather than plausible descriptions of commercial behaviour.

    And so it goes. Economics today has access to the technical riches of generations of effort, but goes to little trouble to work out (on an ongoing basis) what is good sensible use of formal analysis and what is inherently esoteric and unlikely to be of much use.

  13. Rafe Champion says:

    It is a great shame that Popper’s Open Society was blacklisted by Platonists and Marxists. It is a scandal to see whole semester courses on Plato’s Republic without vol 1 of the OSE on the supplementary reading list. Democracy the loser.

    Likewise the story with Marxism. With the dream unveiled as nightmare, how many of the generation of ’68 now wish they had read Popper instead of Marcuse and Fanon in their youth?

    By the way this is the post which preceded the series of OSE posts. It did not come up on the previous list despite the best efforts of helpers behind the scenes to rescue the mess of code that was there in the first place.

    “Our corpses are expected to arrive, by the New Zealand Star, on January 8th or thereabouts. Please receive them kindly.”

  14. Chris Lloyd says:

    Thanks Jase and Rafe. I thought that perhaps there was some link between Popper’s epistemology and politics that I had naively missed.

    BTW Rafe: The terms right-left still mean as much as they ever did. They are tibral identifiers. Self test: if most of your blog comments refer with contempt to the views and especially the history of the right/left then you are left/right. Circular definition I know – but that is the nature of a tribe.

  15. Amused says:


    Why should economists today have to worry about whether or not their formulas or analysis is useful or not in the real world? Any economist who offers a justification, based on ‘scientific axioms’ or anything else, for the curent distribution of power and influence is bound to be taken more seriously than one who questions the status quo. If that seems like a piece of crude political determinism, then so be it. If Popper were alive today, I wonder what connections he would draw between the frenzied attempts to reduce every human interraction into a framework based on the theoretical axiom of ‘frictionless markets’, and the associated social and political campaigns to commodify just about every human activity, and the attempts by stalinist apologetics, to frame everything in terms of the ‘world wide class struggle’ and the inevitable triumph of soviet everything?

  16. It is a great shame that Popper’s Open Society was blacklisted by Platonists and Marxists.

    Anyone know how to contact the Platonists’ International? Just thought I’d alert them to a little problem with a reading list at Macquarie Uni.

    I know it doesn’t lessen the scandal any – it’s only one isolated example, quickly Googled, from an Oz provincial university, well out of the international mainstream of Plato scholarship. No doubt the international Platonist/Marxist conspiracy is flourishing elsewhere, and I shouldn’t worry about this minor failure.

  17. Much obliged, Gummo.

    Those damned Macquarians! Agent99 better come up with a good excuse that can cover his ass for this major oversight.

  18. Gaby says:

    Gummo, and these were written before Popper’s encounter with Wittgenstein’s “poker”. I’ve read “Wittgenstein’s Poker”. Very entertaining.

    But your memory of the detail of the footnotes is far better than mine.

    Also, OSE was supplementary reading in my Jurisprudence course way, way back. And both volumes certainly made rivetting reading. Written with an incredible pellcidity.

    But then Plato’s Republic was the set text. And it is hard to think of a better test to begin exploring the nature and philosophy of justice. As A.N. Whitehaed could of said, the rest of Western philosophy is a humungours Popperian footnote to Plato.

    Nicholas, great riposte to Ken’s “gauntlet”. For me, it’s basically all in that comment. Btw, a Freidman modelling paper was set for a tute somewhere in my Economics defree.

    Finally, to return to part of Nicholas’s original post, the major aspects, for me, of Popper that he ahared with the logical positivists or their successors, the logical empiricists.

    1. The use of deductive logic and formal logic in science and the exclusion of induction.
    2. The foundational bedrock of observation in the form of for Popper basic statements which are used as premises in arguments to refute or corroborating theories.

  19. derrida derider says:

    In my view the only thing that held him back from something very close to market liberalism was a lack of understanding of the factors that cause unemployment (essentially, ill-advised interference with the labour market by means of minimum wages for example).

    Popper, Rafe, had lived through the 20s and 30s in Austria; it is not surprising that he did not subscribe to your crude views on the origins of unemployment. Also Popper, IIRC, became a social democrat because he took the point that distribution of resources amongst people really matters for their welfare.

    But more broadly his strong preference for incrementalism made him suspicious of the utopian conservatism of Hayek and the like.

  20. John Quiggin says:

    Simon Grant and I got a publication much later out of this strategic trade stuff with yet another equilibrium assumption. The underlying point wasn’t to do with strategic trade but to make the point that game theory can’t tell us much unless we have a known strategy space, which is trivially true in relation to actual games like chess and poker, but not generally true in economics.

  21. Ken Parish says:

    Newtonian physics, we now know, supplies a reasonable approximation of reality on a scale between atomic and planetary. Beyond that it starts to get dodgy. Without knowing diddly squat about economics, I’m prepared to accept that economists understand the outer limits within which general equilibrium and other mainstream theories provide a reliable approximation despite underlying assumptions that are self-evidently absurd. But, as Nicholas observes (at least as I read him), to what extent are economists aware of (or at least willing to make explicit) the limits to the boundaries of reliability of all the other myriad propositions they propound so dogmatically as scientific? I simply don’t know. I’m not being cute or throwing down a “gauntlet” or provocation. I genuinely want to know.

    As John Quiggin observes (at least I think he does), game theory might provide one basis for nailing down the boundaries of reliability of some economic theorising involving human behaviour (as just about all economic theorising does), but only if it too is employed carefully and with a clear acknowledgment of the boundaries within which it can be useful.

    In this sense, old Pope Benedict’s recent rant potentially does all of us a favour. You can’t turn cant into unchallengeable truth by anointing it with the holy water of “science” unless you understand and freely and honestly acknowledge the boundaries of the knowable. That is especially true of the “low” (soft) sciences where economics most certainly belongs. However law indubitably belongs there as well, despite its pretensions. But nor can Benedict turn religion into self-evident truth merely by dogmatically associating it with “reason”.

  22. Chris,

    I expect Popper would say there is a strong link between Popper’s epistemology and his politics. Both are built around the idea of creating an environment where successful experiments can thrive – in politics, in the economy and in science.


    As you know I’m critical of certain tendencies of economics. But I think the idea that they are that way because this is a way they support existing power structures – well it’s a conspiracy theory. It doesn’t work for me because I don’t know anyone in on the conspiracy and I reckon I would in the circles I move.

    Also, I think there’s an implicit kind of glamorisation of being against the current status quo. What state of affairs would be preferable? Who would bring it about? Of course I guess we could all point to a few things. Now (I may be wrong but) I read into your comments something a little more thoroughgoing and it seems a bit glib to me.

    I’ve not seen your paper with Simon Grant – would you mind expanding a little on it’s significance?


    Economists are not well trained (often barely trained at all beyond a few cautionary remarks here and there) about the limits of their science. Even very good economists – like Krugman for instance – speak as if a formal analysis of an economic problem is always and inherently superior to an informal one. That’s not true. Each method has its strengths and weaknesses and so there are tradeoffs between the two modes of reasoning.

  23. GrandWiz,

    No worries, happy to help out as always. I assume the spotter’s fee will go to the usual account.

  24. Gaby,

    I think it was in Wittgenstein’s Poker that I read about the Ryle review.

    And I’ve just checked out my busy book, and found Popper’s first shot at Ludwig (Spell of Plato, Ch 2):

    [Heraclitus] visualized the world not as an edifice, but rather as one colossal process; not as the sum total of all things, but rather as the totality of all events, or changes, or facts. (original emphasis)

    Oddly, despite the obvious references to the Tractatus, there’s no footnote to that one, nor any substantive argument to back up Popper’s implied claim that Heraclitus was a proto-Wittgenstein. It’s just a gratuitous, unscholarly, cheap shot at old Ludwig, which misrepresents the philosophy of Heraclitus by way of collateral damage.

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  26. Gaby says:

    Ken wrote,

    “But, as Nicholas observes (at least as I read him), to what extent are economists aware of (or at least willing to make explicit) the limits to the boundaries of reliability of all the other myriad propositions they propound so dogmatically as scientific? I simply don’t know. I’m not being cute or throwing down a “gauntlet”

  27. “… science is a cultural activity as well as a body of knowledge. As such, the judgement of the scientific community plays a key role in the evolution and advance of science.”

    Reminds me of a conversation in my uni days, on Popper and philosophy of science stuff and the trouble I had making of the whole falsification thesis because it didn’t fit the biological sciences very well; you have to do some seriously Procrustean logic chopping to fit activities like sequencing the haemoglobin molecule into Popper’s framework (not that I ever sequenced an entire haemoglobin molecule – just a few small polypeptides that could be dealt with within a day long prac class).

    Finally, my friend and interlocutor – a physics student, and therefore closer to the Popperian sort of science – looked at me, and said wryly “maybe science is just what scientists do.”

    Why all the fuss over whether economics is a science anyway? That’s largely a hangover from the late Victorians, and their irrepressible desire to cut and dry everything. It might be better to just say sod it all, economics is what economists do and who gives a toss whether it’s a science, as long as it’s a fruitful area of inquiry.

    Now that’s it. I’ve completely exhausted my capacity for earnest comment – at least for today.

  28. Amused says:

    You misrepresent the point I was trying to make, or perhaps I did not make it well. I am not a ‘conspiracy theorist’ at all. My point was, and still is, a point concerning the social and political usefulness of much of what passes for ‘economic theory as scientific axioms’,and the faily trite observation that those theories/axioms that provide justificaitons/explanations which support existing power relations will be more supported and respected than those that do not.

    This does not mean that economic theories that provide explanations or justificaitons supportive of existing institutions are wrong per se, rather that they will receive wider circulation, be held to be more ‘realistic’ and will more likely provide the underpinning for conventional policy, both as it is proposed and as it is analysed.

    Since economics is no more ‘scientific’ in the Popperian sense than sociology or history, in my view, its pretensions and evasions, its silences and assumptions are as worthy of analysis as they would be if one was evaluating a sociological work for example. I am completely unpersuaded by the ‘economics as a science’ mob, and as unimpressed by the frequent recourse to abstruse mathematics as a source of predictions about human behaviour, as I am about predictions based on witchcraft or the movement of the planets.

  29. Ken Parish says:

    “Rationality is a practice and science is a cultural activity as well as a body of knowledge. As such, the judgement of the scientific community plays a key role in the evolution and advance of science.”

    Which is precisely why I mentioned Lakatos as well as Popper in my comment. Moreover, for the reasons you advance, I find Lakatos’s approach more satisfying overall than that of Popper in terms of providing a convincing explanation of how bodies of theory (in both hard and soft sciences) gain and lose acceptance.

    I agree with you on the potentially benign influence of peer review, both formal and informal, especially when it involves the Quiggins and Gruens of this world, and maybe that’s enough of a corrective for professional hubris, although I have my doubts. I have a general impression, which Nicholas seems to confirm, that too many economists lack an adequate grasp of the boundaries of what they can plausibly claim for their research, especially in relation to the supposedly magical qualities of markets in just about any area. The Howard government’s creation of a “market” for charities to compete with each other in delivering services to the unemployed and otherwise disadvantaged is a classic example of part of what I’m talking about. The other part of my concern is the “overselling” of neoclassical market theories to oppose almost any form of government intervention in the market in the public interest.

    I may be perpetrating an injustice on the economics profession, of course. My impression may be one created by the media and politicians and their spin doctors rather than by economists themselves. This is now straying some distance from the point Nicholas was making, but it’s these sorts of concerns about neoclassical economics that generated my comment. I’m well aware that there’s a lot more to this sort of discussion than I could ever cover in a comment box, and that I’m not even aware of quite a lot of the nuances of it all and for that matter quite a bit of the basics. I’m also not suggesting in any sense that complex mathematical models, econometric regression etc are bad things, simply that I reckon lots of economists (or perhaps lots of journalists and politicians who sieze on this work and popularise it) lose sight of the inherent limitations of their work and attempt to claim levels of general validity that can’t be rationally sustained. Nor am I suggesting that the economics profession lacks critical voices well beyond just the Quiggins and Gruens. Herbert Simon’s bounded rationality concept is quite an old idea now, but doesn’t seem to inform at least a lot of popular economics discourse, let alone popular discourse being informed by insights from psychology about the extent to which consumer decisions are rational even in a bounded sense (despite Kahneman’s Nobel prize).

  30. Gaby says:

    Gummo, agree but what economists actually do is only part of it. The output is important too, “fruitful” as you indicate. And the nub is to identify the good and bad economics.

    The aim of any science must be to describe, explain and enable us to understand the nature or operation of an objective and independent reality. So I suppose a philosphy of science tries to characterize what science is, and in so doing gives and account of sound practices for rationality and science and for the evolution of bodies of knowledge.

    Ken, I don’t dissent from what you say. But for the evolution of economic knowledge one wouldn’t go to the media or a spin doctor.The arbiters would have to be members of the profession. Isn’t the difference between listening to say Krugman on international trade as opposed to Thomas Friedman or Robert Reich?

    And economics is evolving. I don’t know any of the “bounded rationality” work you refer to, but it sounds relevant to the sort of “behavioural economics” that Schiller is working on.

    But I have to say it is blogs like these, for a layman like me, that make it much, much easier to have access to, and to try and gain some understanding of, current academic thinking and the Groves of Academe. Hence my earlier allusion to the Glass Bead Game.

  31. Jc says:

    What you are missing in your thoughts is the the need the make mistakes. Markets “allow” people to make mistakes. In fact human progress is a junk yard full of mistakes. Markets allow participants to try and find the best solutions possible.

  32. Rafe Champion says:

    Markets are just what happens when people start trading and exchanging things. They don’t actually do, allow, or decide anything, it is the people who do all those things.

    One of the things that economists investigate is the way that these activities are influenced by things like (a) the prevailing mores of the society and (b) the institutional framework that is in place.

  33. Amused says:

    So Rafe,
    Is it the institutional and cultural framework in place or the thing, ‘market’ in and of itself? The ‘market’ is an abstraction chock full of assumptions, silences and ideological claptrap. On the other hand, an actually exisitng market for ‘something or other’ is a far better object of analysis, since we can actually incorporate the relationships between a wide range of people, things and institutions, that enable a number of questions to be asked, even if we may not be able to provide all the answers. An good example would be to analyse the framewoerks, relationships and politics underlying the differences between the market for shelter that exists oin Australia compared to say, France.

    On the issue that ‘markets’ allow mistakes to be made-the point is? “Markets’as such, don’t do anything. People engaging in various forms of exchange, involving various kinds of relationships do, or don’t do, things that might be described as mistakes. In my view much economic analysis and writing is nothing more than high level fetishization, worthy of some medieval theologist of old. The introduction of elegant mathematical formulas certainly ups the stakes when it comes to who can play the game of describing and analysing, but it no more improves our understanding of the real world and the relations that constitute it, than parsing verbs can tell you anything about the use and purpose that people make of literature and language for example.

  34. Ken,

    I can see that Lakatos will have to go on my to read list. Might overcome my Popper inspired cynicism about the usefulness of philosophy of science.

    While I was off-line last night, thinking over Gaby’s response to my last comment, Monk’s account of Wittgenstein’s time at Guy’s Hospital during WWII came to mind. I’d recommend a quick squiz to anyone who might be interested in what can happen when a philosopher who isn’t particularly bent on telling scientists what science should be gets involved with a group of scientists.

  35. Rafe says:

    You will be wasting your time Gummo. People who approach their problem-solving in science and elsewhere with a combination of ingenuity and relentless imaginative criticsm have no use for the philosophy of science, except to get rid of dud ideas that they have picked up from the positivists or Kuhn. Or Lakatos.

    Lakatos actually attempted to make a Hegelian synthesis out of Popper and Kuhn.

  36. Well Rafe, I could always give him a quick skim down the library before I dive in the deep end and shell out any . If he turns out to be as much of a time-waster as Hutt, I’ll doubtless forego buying any of his books for myself. Since I have much less money than time to waste.

  37. Rafe says:

    On Lakatos (and Kuhn), it could be helpful to read Chalmers (third edition) where he worked through the major modern schools of the philosophy of science.

  38. Gaby says:

    Gummo, ignore Rafe, but only after reading the brief paper he has linked to in his penultimate comment. Chalmers is good for a little mental orienteering, if you think you need it.

    Then go to Lakatos’s “Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge” in Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge (ed. Lakatos and Musgrave) as a start.

  39. John Quiggin says:

    Nick, my paper with Simon showed that, in the strategic trade models that were all the rage a while back, either fixed or ad valorem tariffs could be optimal depending on the strategy space for the duopolists. This same question was the subject of a talk by Chuck Blackorby at the Economists Conference.

    But as I said, the main point I wanted to make was the fragility of deductions from game-theoretic models with arbitrary choices of strategy space.

  40. Rafe says:

    Yes, ignore me, what would I know about these things!

    But Gaby, you were surely joking when you wrote this #20

    “the major aspects, for me, of Popper that he shared with the logical positivists or their successors, the logical empiricists.

    1. The use of deductive logic and formal logic in science and the exclusion of induction.
    2. The foundational bedrock of observation in the form of for Popper basic statements which are used as premises in arguments to refute or corroborating theories.”

    The positivists and empiricists did not exclude in induction, they were obsessed with it, and the quest for the elusive inductive probability for theories. In fact they ran themselves into the ground and made themselves so boring and irrelevant that students turned to POMO which at first sight looked more interesting.

    Observation is not the bedrock for Popper, the test of observation and evidence is merely the reality check that needs to be applied to theories. As he pointed out, observations are theory-dependent, which does not have the relativistic consequences that some people claim, but it does mean that observations can be problematic.

    Incidentally, I think Popper and most of his interpreters, including myself, really made a meal of demarcation, it is not about drawing lines between subjects or disciplines it is about whether you are prepared to take evidence seriously. So Marxism and psychoanalysis are not inherently non-scientific, it was just doctrinaire Marxists and analysts who regarded everything that happened as proof of their theories. Popper accepted that there was probably a deal of truth in Freudianism, he was just pissed off with Freudian ideologues.

  41. Ken Parish says:

    Hi John (Quiggin)

    I’ve tried to use this thread to begin developing my own rudimentary understanding of some of the economics issues raised. I’ve done that in part by attempting to restate what I understand you and others to be saying in my own words. I’m hoping you’ll either tell me that I’m vaguely on the right track or have completely misunderstood (and I won’t be offended either way). Thus, where you say:

    “But as I said, the main point I wanted to make was the fragility of deductions from game-theoretic models with arbitrary choices of strategy space …”

    I attempted to restate my understanding of your point as:

    “As John Quiggin observes (at least I think he does), game theory might provide one basis for nailing down the boundaries of reliability of some economic theorising involving human behaviour (as just about all economic theorising does), but only if it too is employed carefully and with a clear acknowledgment of the boundaries within which it can be useful.”

    Right track or complete lack of understanding?

  42. Gaby says:

    Rafe, disparagement is not argument.

    And please don’t be obtuse. You know I was referring to the type of argument that the confirmation or falsification (as the case may be) of theories or laws is couched in by positivists or Popper respectively.

    Your para on observation is too opaque for me to understand in the context of Popper’s system.

    Also your paper that you link to doesn’t seem to make any claim that Lakatos attmempted an Hegelian synthesis out of Popper and Kuhn. I know, however, that Ian Hacking has propounded such a view.

  43. Rafe Champion says:

    Not wanting to be obtuse Gaby, but did you mean to say that the logical positivists excluded induction from their system?

    The function and status of inductive logic was the major bone of contention between the positivists/empiricists and Popper.

    To clarify the function of observation in the context of Popper’s system, it is one of the various forms of criticism or appraisal that can be applied to theories.

    On Lakatos and his Hegelian synthesis, this is the relevent para from the link.

    Lakatos formed a parasitic relationship with both Popper and Kuhn. From Popper he took the idea of research programmes. From Kuhn he took the idea that the central part of the program should be protected from criticism. He used some exciting new terms; his program has a ‘hard core’ of theories. A ‘protective belt’ of lesser theories that can be modified or discarded surrounds it. But beneath the verbal froth and bubble this is a recipe for conservatism. It prohibits the most important and fruitful criticisms which are directed at the framework assumptions of the program.

  44. Rafe,

    … People who approach their problem-solving in science and elsewhere with a combination of ingenuity and relentless imaginative criticsm have no use for the philosophy of science, except to get rid of dud ideas …

    That very nicely summarises the opinion I developed of Popper, once I realised that he’d never had to stroll causally down the corridor from the lavvy to the lab with a plastic jug of his own urine, rock up to student health for a tetanus booster after the annual laboratory mouse bite or prepare serial dilutions of a sample of salmonella typhii without giving himself gastro. As for the rest of that sentence it’s obvious that you’re playing favourites – why leave Pooper out of the list of philosophers the genuinely inquiring might disdain?

  45. Damn – another bloody parapractic typo!

  46. Rafe Champion says:

    Gummo, your masochism is showing, (do you really enjoy being whipped?) as a matter of fact Popper did work in a psychology laboratory when he was studying for his teachers quals and his doctorate with Karl Buhler, of Buhler and Buhler, psychologists extraordinary.

    Later he became a close friend of many scientists, especially John Eccles and they exchanged many letters while Eccles was in Otago (down the road from Christchurch) doing the work that won his Nobel Prize. The letters included detailed discussions of the experimental work.

    Medawar, Einstein, Monod and Eccles all enthused about his ideas and many lesser lights in New Zealand spent time with him and gained benefits, including better understanding of the role of research in universities. He was great shot in the arm for higher education in New Zealand.

  47. Rafe,

    First a correction – it was Salmonella typhimurium, not typhii. You wouldn’t go near a typhii culture without a glove box.

    Second, that last comment was a bit of a nostalgia trip about why Popper’s theories didn’t appeal then – when I got round to Kuhn, I decided he had a much better handle on what went on in science, having been through the science pedagogy mill himself.

    Popper’s ideas might have more appeal if:

    1) His devoted disciples toned it down a bit and recognised that some of his ideas – such as the idea that Darwinism/evolutionary theory is a “metaphysical research project” are pretty dumb;

    2) They actually stopped dissing and dismissing the contributions of other philosophers in the field;

    3) They recognised that Popper’s ideas on science ain’t scientific if they ain’t falsifiable. At least according to Popper.

    When it comes to a philosopher I don’t judge him (too much) by who he hangs around with, but what he writes. Popper’s description of Aristotle in OSE could equally be applied to Popper himself in my view.

    And finally, he wasn’t the only 20th Century philosopher to hang around with scientists – check out the Monk bio of Wittgenstein I referred to in an earlier comment. It’s an interesting story of, among other things, a philosopher applying imagination and ingenuity to the solving of a problem.

  48. Rafe says:

    Gummo I don’t know if anyone else is interested in our exchange but I suppose I will just have to keep on as long as you confuse the issues.

    On Kuhn, please advise what he offers to guide or instruct scientists to be more effective and productive. Or alternatively, what time-wasting and confusing errors of method did he expose?\

    On the other points:
    1. Popper retracted his initial description of Darwinism as a MRP. He is a great fan of Darwin and evolutionary theory, and his theory of knowledge can be described as evolutionary epistemology. So what is your beef there?

    He also retracted his numerical theory of verisimilitude when various people including his student David Miller pointed out it was flawed. Also he canned an ambitious project on the fundamental basis of logic.

    It is ok to make mistakes as long as you learn from them and get out if there is no way to go forward.

    2. Would you like to nominate some examples where his criticism of other philosophers – like the inductivists who believe in attaching p values to theories – has been effectively rebutted. Again, what is your beef? He is an exponent of the elimination of error by critical discussion and observational tests. It is hardly a criticism that he practiced what he preaches, you need to take up points of detail to sustain that line of attack.

    3. You have missed the point (again). Proposals about methods are not supposed to be falsifiable in the way that a descriptive theory may be. They have to be tested either by their coherence or by their utility in helping scientists. Again, do you have any specific criticisms about his advice to scientists?

    Your last point is wasted space because I am not aware that I ever suggested that he was the only philosopher to hang around with scientists.

  49. It’s obvious that this thread is very quickly going to get a lot less congenial if I continue to hang around, so it’s time for me to rack off. Now, in answer to Rafe, taking the last point first, and then working through the rest in whatever order I find convenient.

    The story of Wittgenstein’s war years is pretty well known – it’s a part of the Wittgenstein oral tradition. At least the first part is; at the beginning of WWII he decided it wasn’t fitting for him to hang around Cambridge teaching philosophy, so he took a leave of absence, and got himself a job at Guy’s Hospital in London’s East End. The result wasn’t quite the grand renunciation that he intended. Although he professed a desire to be treated as just another one of the workers, he was granted, and used, the privilege of using the doctors’ cafeteria ratrher than the proles’ cafeteria, so his workmates soon sussed out that he wasn’t quite ordinary.

    Pity you’ve made such a point of reading to read anything about Wittgenstein that might be in the least bit sympathetic to old Ludwig Rafe – you might find that part of the story amusing. I did.

    The lesser known part is that Wittgenstein was eventually transferred to a lab assistant’s job, where he fitted in much better. This resulted in a move to Newcastle, where he worked with a medical research unit studying the phenomenon of “shock”. Fortuitously, the researchers were inclined to view “shock” as a fiction – not a genuine syndrome, but a convenient catch all term for a range of possible symptoms resulting from wound trauma. Or something like that. Fortuitously, because, as we all know, Wittgenstein’s philosophical interest by this time was in the way that language gives us the ability to – inadvertently – invent philosophical problems for ourselves. The problem of “shock”, it’s definition and it’s treatment presented a medical research problem to which that philosophical approach was ideally suited.

    When the director of the research unit was transferred elsewhere – to Wales, I think – he wrote a glowing letter of reccommendation for Wittgenstein, urging that he be kept on in the unit because he had proved himself a very valuable worker and had contributed much to their research – including the development of new tests (or possibly test instruments – at this point my recollection of Monk’s account becomes vague) of physiological function. The end. Pity I can’t remember the names of any of the minor characters – one or two of them might actually turn out to be more or less eminent.

    Maybe it’s my misfortune to have read all three Wittgensteins – Tractatus Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations and posthumous Wittgenstein before I got to Popper in any serious way, and well before I started in on OSE, then abandoned it as a waste of time because Popper had very little to present in the way of a positive thesis – his definition of “democracy” in Spell of Plato Seven is weak enough to accomodate a lot of political arrangements which are manifestly undemocratic. Outright plutocracy for example – you’d like to be one of the rulers, rather than one of the ruled? Easy – just get rich enough. Or organise a co-operative to raise the funds you’ll need to buy out the current government. When it comes down to it, OSE one is just a long boring fisk of Plato.

    What you get mostly in both volumes of OSE is a lot of ad-hominem argument, various cheesy attempts to define problems of political philosophy out of existence and some remarkably censorious footnotes on the failures of other philosophers. My favourite among those is the remarkable one on JS Mill’s unnecessary admissions – in On the Subjection of Women and On Representative Government. I couldn’t get my grubbies on the former, but when I checked out the latter and found what I think was the admission in question, I found it refuted fairly persuasively within a couple of paragraphs. As is the case with Mill’s (equally unnecessary) admission, in his work on political economy, that communism prima facie is fairer than capitalism.

    I think I’ll let the Wittgenstein story stand as my answer to your demand that I name some eminent scientists who’ve had their work pushed along a bit with help from Kuhn or Lakatos, since the main thrust of that demand is that Popper is the one and only philosopher, within living memory, to achieve this feat. Which shows, along with your dismissive attitude to any philosophy of science that isn’t Popperian, that you’re too much in thrall to the great man. I found that with a collection of Popper memorial essays I dipped into, you know where – the same over-willingness to take the man at his own evaluation and ditto the ideological enemies he chose for himself.

    And now, regardless of whether anyone considers this comment an adequate reply to Rafe’s last one, I’m off – because very soon this thread isn’t going to be any fun for anybody. Especially me.

  50. Rafe says:

    Come on Gummo, not a single criticism of any specific point in Popper’s philosophy of science? What a pathetic effort!

  51. Jason Soon says:

    I don’t want to pile onto Gummo but he seems excessively touchy. All Rafe did was correct his misrepresentations/errors about Popper’s views on evolution and verification and did an excellent job about it.

  52. Gaby says:


    I was trying to make the point that the basic form of explanation (and prediction according to Hempel) for logical positivists or empiricists was deductive. This is the “logical” part of their name. They were influenced by the propositional calculus of Russell and also by Wittgenstein’s “Tractatus”. And this is something Popper shares with them. Especially modus tollens.

    I was thinking in particular of Hempel’s deductive-nomological explanation. I admit that I think they used inductive reasoning to try to “confirm” their premises, or in other words to establish their truth and those propound sound deductive arguments.

    I’m surprised by the limited role you give to “observation” in Popper’s system in #45 above. I would have thought it was at least the pre-eminent among many forms of test.

    I don’t know much about Hegel, so how is that para particularly Hegelian? Seemingly your view is different from Hacking’s Hegelian interpretation of Lakatos. From memory, he argues that Lakatos thought science aimed at the growth of knowledge rather than truth or increasing verisimilitude.

    Re Gummo’s 3 ,and pace him, I think he may be having a go at you in the sense that you are involved in a Lakatosian degenerating research programme in your staunch, ardent and “hard core” defence of Popper’s system. Just an interpretation.

    I also think it is a standard view that Popper didn’t really give a thorough account of science as a cultural activity. I’m not sure why you are restricting this to Kuhn though.

  53. No excuses intended, but it’s definitely a mood disorder thing. Which is why I’m quitting while I’m behind.

  54. Gaby says:

    Sorry Gummo I didn’t see your reply before I commented.

    Rafe, Jason, why is this constant goading necessary? I don’t think there is any obligation to reply to anything said , whether generally or specifically, around here if you don’t want to. Nice if someone does. Otherwise best not to prattle, whine or gloat.

  55. Jason Soon says:

    Who’s goading who, Gaby? All I said was that Rafe made some excellent points about Popper revising his views on evolution and corrected Gummo’s misunderstanding of whether a proposed method was itself open to falsification under Popper’s scheme. I thought these were very serious misrepresentations of Popper’s thought that Gummo made, but not at all unrepresentative of common misunderstandings of Popper (especially the tu quoque one). I then remarked that Gummo seemed to take it the wrong way. Gummo is of course not obliged to reply to any of Rafe’s questions but that is a different issue.

  56. Gaby says:

    Jason, after Rafe at 48 and, for me, his missing the gist of Gummo’s post at 49, 52 and 53 read like a tag teaming to me.

  57. Rafe Champion says:

    Gaby, I think I picked up every point that Gummo made at 48, mostly mistakes and misrepresentations, but don’t blame me for his problems. I don’t mean to be rude and I am just trying to enagage in vigorous debate.

    I take your point about modus tollens, I was going to mention that but was afraid of intimidating people with technical language. Still the important difference between Popper and the positivists was that he insisted that the modus tollens only permits refutation [the black swan refutes the theory that all swans are white], not support, while the positivists wanted to say that a theory has more credibility after it passes a test [the observation of another white swan]. But they have never been able explain why that is the case.

    As to the importance of observation, you make another good point and it may have been pre-eminent when Popper was talking about the logic of experimental or observational testing. However I think it helps to see observation as one of five forms of criticism.

    (1) check the problem – what are we really talkng about? what is the issue at stake? That is helpful to bring a long thread of argument back to the point if it has drifted off track, or if doctrines are taught in isolation from the historical, social or scientific circumstances where they were first invented.

    (2) the check of logic – check the internal consistency of the theory.

    (3) check consistency with other well tested theories.

    (4) the check of evidence.

    (5) check the metaphysics – the philosophical assumptions of the program.

    It may be a standard view that Popper did not give a thorough account of science as a cultural activity, but what sort of criticism is that (even if it is true)? He mostly wrote about epistemology, logic and scientific method.

    However it is an Irish criticism because in chapter 23 of The Open Society (written in English, in 1945) he anticipated the sociology of science and he pointed out that the most important feature of science and especially the objectivity of science and its capacity to grow by cooperative criticism is the social nature of science, it is a pracitice carried on by communities of interested people.


    Beware of standard views of Popper. Gummo is full of them.

  58. Ken Parish says:

    This isn’t my discussion, but I don’t think there was anything uncivil or ad hominem about any aspect of this discussion. It really would be the pony club if you couldn’t debate issues on this sort of polite but forthright level, and I don’t think it’s tagteaming just because Rafe and Jason have a generally positive view of Popper.

  59. And on reviewing this thread myself I see it all started to go pear-shaped for me when I responded to Rafe’s 48

    “Gummo your masochism is showing,” etc.

    And there’s another (admitedly petty and ad-hominem) reason I’m abandoning any notions of attempting another read of Popper – it might turn me into a snide, patronising pompous git. I’m quite unpleasant enough already.

  60. Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water – Imre Lakatos turns up on the Philosopher’s Zone. Sounded to me like Alan Saunders was peddling some fairly ‘standard’ views.

  61. Rafe Champion says:

    Gummo if you read Popper in a critical and self-critical manner you might learn enough about his ideas to make a useful contribution to the discussion instead of giving me about five free kicks every time you post more than a couple of sentences.

    48 was a reply to your claim that Popper did not know about laboratory work or the practical side of science.

    “Popper did work in a psychology laboratory when he was studying for his teachers quals and his doctorate with Karl Buhler, of Buhler and Buhler, psychologists extraordinary.

    Popper and Eccles exchanged many letters while Eccles was in Otago doing the work that won his Nobel Prize. The letters included detailed discussions of the experimental work.

    Medawar, Einstein, Monod and Eccles all enthused about his ideas and many lesser lights in New Zealand spent time with him and gained benefits, including better understanding of the role of research in universities. He was great shot in the arm for higher education in New Zealand.”

    Incidentally your crit of The Open Society is equally poor as anyone can tell who dips into the condensed version that is on line at 5.

  62. Rafe says:

    Alan Saunders? When Peter Saunders joined CIS from the UK he told me that Lakatos had superseded Popper in the philosophy of science, apparently this was the general view in the academic community among people who take any notice of those issues.

    I don’t have sound but a friend phoned up to give me a report on the program. OK Alan Saunders is the moving spirit of the Philosophers Zone. I seem to recall a joke that he made about Popper disappearing from the reading lists in universities while his memory is sustained by fanatics with websites. I sent him an email to tell him about my site but he did not reply. Maybe he already knew about it.

    It is apparent that Lakatos has managed to sell everyone a gigantic dummy. Not for nothing was his background in the communist party, he was the ultimate academic politician and fixer.

    Lakatos claimed that Popper’s conception of science depended on conclusive refutations. The white swan refutes the theory that all swans are black (or vice versa).

    There are at least two problems with that scenario.

    1. Observations are problematic (was it really white [or black]).

    2. Other theories and assumptions are involved in addition to the particular theory that is being tested – these theories relate to other events that are happening at the same time, the operation of the instruments etc etc.

    Hence you don’t get clean refutations. Exit Popper, the naive falsificationist.

    Big problem with the Lakatos story: Popper was perfectly aware of the above wrinkles, which is why he made a distinction between the clean logic of falsifiability and the messy actuality of falsification in scientific practice.

    So it is simply wrong to suggest that Lakatos fond a weak spot in Popper’s scheme. That is why Gummo and John Quiggin have not been able to respond to my request for a clear statement about the problem with Popper that Lakatos claimed to have fixed.

    Pity about the effort that has been wasted by folk taken in by Lakatos and his followers. But he was a charismatic little fellow and his work on mathematics is widely admired by people like Joe Agassi who are aware of his scam in the philosophy of science.

  63. Gaby says:

    Ken, I didn’t think there was anything particularly “uncivil”, my point was that it was unnecessary. I mean we got to about comment #48 with basically no juvenile king or name calling, so why not carry on in that vein.

    The “tagteaming” was my comment because I felt that after an asinine comment from Rafe at #52, Jason, who hadn’t been much part of the discussion, chimed immediately in with an irrelevant observation, aimed to niggle, in my view.

    If this were a face to face discussion, then none of us would politely resort to such rhetorical gambits. Why can’t a discussion be continued in the same vein here by focussing on the substane, which I reckon all have done pretty well?

    Game theory has come up on this thread, so this is tangentially relevant. In some iterated games, “tit for tat” is a good, even maximal, strategy. I suggest that conversation and blog commenting (a “poly-logue” perhaps”) is such a game. And the consequence is that if we all co-operate, it’s mutually advantageous. Like international trade in the main.

    Also, as far as I’m aware, participating in a blog discussion is not a sport, and certainly not a contact sport. So do we need the “trash talking” and gloating if someone shoulc “score” a point. I mean, I love soccer, but the ridiculous celebrations after someone scores truly irritate me…

    This is just a personal view. I’ll get back to Rafe later.

  64. I laughed at the banderilleros display,
    As each stuck the bull in their own clever way,
    For I hadn’t had so much fun since the day,
    My brother’s dog rover,
    Got run over!

    (Impulse control, impulse control, impulse control!)

  65. Jason Soon says:

    Irrelevant observation? One bloody observation and I get crucified for playing tagteam. A bit like how whyisitso was treated by Nick.

    Yes as Gaby pointed out I was an interested lurker and I was enjoying the exchange of views between Rafe and Gummo and then when Gummo made a couple of what I thought were bad howlers and Rafe corrected him (and yes proceeded to niggle him), I was going to step in myself but Rafe did a good job. And then it was Gummo who proceeded to ‘whinge’ by basically saying he was taking his bat and going home just because Rafe had the temerity to respond. (and note it was Gaby who first complained about people ‘whinging’ – from my observation that was Gummo who did it first).

    Frankly the sort of open rambunctiousness of GMB is preferable to this dishonest smearing masked as high mindedness from Gaby. I’d rather cop a couple of 4 letter words from Birdy than this passive-aggressive sanctimony from Gaby/

    Fine, I’m shutting up and outta here.

  66. Rafe says:

    Just when I was giving Gaby credit for some good points!

    Gaby, I thought my #48 was quite mild, a joking reference to Gummo as a masochist because he made huge mistakes on matters of fact which could easily be shown up.

    My #52 which you describd as “asinine” was admittedly more terse but it was a statement of two facts.

    i. not a single criticism of any specific point in Popper’s philosophy of science.

    2. a pathetic effort!

    It is not my fault of Gummo is determined to make an ass of himself.

    See if you can carry on in a way that advances understanding of the issues instead of slipping sideways into complaints about the way I have posted.

    Show us, don’t tell us!

  67. It seems apposite to start with the prequel to my last comment:

    Out came the matador,
    Who must have been potted or,
    Slightly insane but who looked rather bored.

    Then the picadors of course,
    Each one on his horse,
    I shouted ole every time one was gored!

    OK so I got gored – shit happens. And yes, that big comment with the Wittgenstein screed was a Bat/Ball/Home effort. And a vain attempt to crack Rafe’s very close -minded view that the only 20th century philosopher of any substance was Karl Popper.

    And no Rafe, I’m not determined to make an ass of myself – I’m determined to stop. It would be a damn sight easier if you acquired enough finess to recognise the difference between baiting – which I freely admit I’ve done in this thread – and goading. You play the ideas, mate, not the man. It’s no less personal but a lot more stylish.

    And now it’s definitely B/B/H time for me too.

  68. Gaby says:

    Ok. I’m happy to call it quits. I’ve called names. And been called some.

    Let’s let bygones be gone? And resume normal service. Rafe has several points that I think deserve comment. I’ll try to do so soon.

  69. Rafe says:

    Just when I was getting warmed up.

    Or as Arthur Mailey said when the Victorian innings finished at about 1100 runs – “just as I was striking a length”.

  70. Gaby says:

    On a brighter note, this thread is not doing too badly in terms of Godwin’s law. I’d say it has a pretty low “Godwin score”.

  71. Rafe, please don’t mistake this as aggressive or even judgemental. It’s more inquisitive than anything else. And I’m certainly not saying that you more particularly demonstrate this characteristic than anyone else in the thread. I’ve not read all the relevant comments carefully enough to pass judgement (or at least relative judgement) between you and the others, and I’m not interested in doing so.

  72. Gaby says:

    Rafe at no. 59,

    “As to the importance of observation, you make another good point and it may have been pre-eminent when Popper was talking about the logic of experimental or observational testing. However I think it helps to see observation as one of five forms of criticism.”

    But I think the test of observation is the most important aspect of Popper’s philosophy of science. He thought he had found a methodological touchstone such that an appropriate basic statement could prove a theory false. And given the theory ladeness of observation and the falsifiability of basic statements, this created problems for his account. Basic statements are accepted by decision or in other words by convention. For a basic statement to falsify a theory a reproducible effect has to be corroborated into a “falsifying hypothesis”.

    So it has been argued that the consequence for Popper’s theory is that “every falsification reqires a corroboration of a falsifying hypothesis and in no particular case can a falsification be any stronger or more final than a corroboration”.

    Also Rafe at #59,

    “It may be a standard view that Popper did not give a thorough account of science as a cultural activity, but what sort of criticism is that (even if it is true)? He mostly wrote about epistemology, logic and scientific method.”

    If you accept science as a cultural activity, then you would expect a philosophy of science to give a good account of this activity. And therefore an account of the practice of rationality and the nature of scientific knowledge; what reasons do we have to believe in science. These are all respectable questions, whether for philosphy or wherever else one chooses to plonk them. No big deal if one’s philosophy doesn’t deal with them, but then it isn’t complete or the last word.

    The history of science is relevant to all of these issues. I went back and had a look at one of Lakatos’s papers and it starts with this paraphrase of a dictum of Kant: “philosophy of science without history of science is empty: history of science without philosophy of science is blind.” The standard view is that Popper lacks, or didnt look at, these sort of issues. And another criticism is that Popper’s system is not true to this history and of how science has developed.

    I’m not really bothered where these issues are investigated: philosophy, history or sociology etc. I’m with Quine’s philosophical naturalism which essentially says that there are really only questions and evidence.

  73. Rafe says:

    Having said that Gaby, what SPECIFIC criticism do you have to make about one or more of Popper’s views? Given that he was on top of the non-foundational nature of observational statements.

    He advocated the historical approach to problems, that is, findng out what other people have had to say about that problem and related issues in the lead up to the debate at the time. Hence the footnotes to OSE.

    He also paid attention to the importance of norms and conventions in scientific practice, as indicated by Jarvie’s book.

    I have not claimed that he said the last word on anything, I have just decided to point out false and misleading rumours that circulate regarding his ideas. This is dangerous because it upsets a lot of people who for various reasons that I would really like to understand are very attached to their rather odd views on Popper and his work.

    Has anyone found this a helpful exercise? I mean has any one scratched their head and wondered how come Popper has become a punching bag for people who have apparently not read or understood what he wrote?

  74. Ken Parish says:

    I must confess I don’t quite understand the source of all this heated but fairly polite disagreement. For example, I don’t understand why Rafe doesn’t like Lakatos very much, given that Lakatos’s work is essentially an elaboration/nuancing of Popper’s work in response to Kuhn’s critique. Lakatos adds a sort of sociological overlay to Popper’s falsification, which appears better to describe the actual process of acceptance and decay of bodies of scientific theory, without fundamentally disagreeing with Popper. At least that’s my reading. Perhaps Rafe dislikes the fact that Lakatos arguably opened himself up to Feyerabend’s later accusation that Lakatos was a closet anarchist (and therefore an unwitting Feyerabend ally) because of Lakatos’s addition to Popper’s approach of the process notion of erection of defensive/protective belts of hypotheses to protect the core of accepted theories. However, despite Feyerabend’s glib assertion, Lakatos’s conceding the existence of such social/political processes doesn’t in any sense invalidate science’s claim to authority/reliability nor buttress Feyerabend’s anti-rationalist denial that science can be regarded as a form of knowledge entitled to any privileging over other belief systems, but just another ideology undeserving of its exulted status.

    I also can’t help wondering whether Lakatos’ Marxist associations tend to prejudice Rafe against him irrespective of the merits of Lakatos’s arguments, just as perhaps Popper’s associations with Hayek and the foundations of “neoliberalism” seem instinctively to prejudice Gummo Trotsky against the latter. But surely philosophers are not like football teams. We don’t need to choose one and barrack for him and treat all others as opposition teams. In philosophy of science as in most other areas of philosophy, all the main players (maybe even Wittgenstein) potentially add something valuable to the picture and enhance our understanding of the complex phenomenon of the evolution of scientific knowledge. I certainly think one needs at least a nodding acquaintance with the thinking of Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos, Quine and Feyerabend (although the latter is the least useful IMO) to have even a basic understanding of the philosophy of science (which is all I can claim), and I don’t think it’s terribly useful or even sensible to plump for any one of them as holding a monopoly on wisdom in the field.

  75. Rafe says:

    Ken, Kuhn never had a critique of Popper that required a nuanced reply. Unless I have missed something.

    The starting point for Lakatos was the claim that there was something wrong with Popper’s “naive falsificationism” but that was a red herring because Popper was never that.

    I don’t understand the sociological overlay that L provided to P, L himself was profoundly contemptuous of sociology and the social sciences at large. Popper had already played up the historical angle and demonstrated it himself, and he formulated a theory of meatphysical research programs which is clearly the inspiration for Lakatos on programs except that Lakatos (a) wanted to get the positivists on side so he did not want to mention metaphysics and (b) he wanted to at least look original.

    One of the tests of the Lakatos program is the help that it provided to the economists who took it up. The positive end result of some decades of work by Latsis, Blaug, and others is zero, although of course they all had a lot of fun, especially at two conferences in the Greek Islands funded by Latsis senior who was a shipping magnate (actually Latsis junior has inherited the empire).

    I don’t have any problem with the Marxist background of Lakatos, what else could people do in that situation if they wanted to have a career?

  76. Rafe says:

    Gaby’s point: ‘So it has been argued that the consequence for Popper’s theory is that “every falsification reqires a corroboration of a falsifying hypothesis and in no particular case can a falsification be any stronger or more final than a corroboration”

  77. Gaby says:

    Not so much “weekend reflections” but week-ending reflections…

    Well Rafe, I feel I have been sufficiently specific in setting out what I think to be the limitations of Popper’s philsophy in relation to his methodological rule for science and his treatment of the broader cultural aspects of science. But then I think it is impossible for me, and probably others, to satisfy your particular demands for specificity in this matter.

    I think his methodology ultimately founders because falsification seems to require corroboration of some kind in order to be carried through. It also doesn’t really enlighten us on theory choice among competing theories.

    I’ve read your other post on his “sociology”, and from this and my memory of reading OSE and the Poverty of Historicism many years ago, his thoughts were quite general. He also didn’t do the sort of detailed history of science that Kuhn and others have attempted.

    Ken, I’d agree with your last comment, especially the last sentence. I’d add Larry Laudan to your list. He has written some very interesting stuff on progress in science and increasing truthfulness.

    On that note, thanks for all the fun and enjoy the AFL Grand Final tomorrow. Havagudun.

  78. Rafe Champion says:

    “I think his methodology ultimately founders because falsification seems to require corroboration of some kind in order to be carried through.”

    In what sense does the methodology “founder” on the need for corroboration? A whole chapter of the Logic of Scientific Discocery is devoted to corroboration. Perhaps you should read the whole book some time if you want to comment usefully on these matters.

    I was hoping that you had read it so that that we could talk about his actual views instead of distorted accounts provided by hostile critics.

    What criteria are you using for the success or failure of a methodology?

    “It also doesn’t really enlighten us on theory choice among competing theories.”

    You choose according to your purpose. You choose the theory that stands up to tests – that solves the problem etc etc. What is so hard about that? What are the criteria that other philosophers apply?

    On the topic of history, he did not claim to be a historian so your comment would appear to be a bit on the mean side. What is the point of saying that he didn’t do the sort of detailed history that Kuhn did? I asked what Kuhn had to offer in the way of advice and I would still like you to respond to that if you think Kunn was so helpful in comparison with the foundered program of critical rationalism.

    What do you make of the historical work that Popper did on quantum theory as an adjunct to his critique of the Copenhagan program? It looks like detailed history but it is all a bit hard for me and it distracts from other areas of concern.

    Dont think I am claiming a monopoly of wisdom, I am just requesting valid criticisms.

  79. Rafe,

    Gaby and most of the people on this thread (I suspect) have not read Popper right through or if they have done so they have not done so recently. They will also possibly have read Popper with the kind of interpretations you claim are erroneous being whispered in their ear.

    Now it may be irritating for you to come across what you regard as misprepresentations of Popper. But I don’t think the answer is to tell people to go back and re-read. Life is too short. You can get stuck in there and rather than tell us to go read the book, I would have though you could engage. You could set out how you see Popper as differing from the assertions made about him citing chapter and verse if that suits your fancy.

    Doing that need not be at great length. But if you did so it might send us back to the book motivated to find what you clue us into being there.

    Besides which lots of the critics who have read Popper have read the book and presumably misunderstood him. So it’s not a matter of just reading the book (when is it ever just a matter of that?). It’s a matter of reading the book clued into what Popper is getting at. Can’t you, shouldn’t you be trying to help people with that?

    Certainly if I were having an argument with you about Keynes’ General Theory or any other text which I had studied carefully and recently, there would be things I could do to set you straight rather than simply say ‘read the book’. And Keynes is so misunderstood that I’d want to be giving you my ‘spin’ on him rather than your reading others errors of interpretation into him.

  80. Gaby says:

    Does that include the Postcript too?

    Nice comment Nicholas. I couldn’t have written that. So elegant and courteous.

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