Hypotheses, Falsifiability and the Limits of First-World Science

Hypotheses, Falsifiability and the Limits of First-world Science

They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

The Scientific Method seems all the rage these days in e.g. Lean Startups and software development circles. And generally so amongst folks with seemingly only a limited knowledge of the risks and contradictions raised in e.g. the Philosophy of Science.

I propose that on those occasions when we choose to use the Scientific Method, we should at least have some understanding of what that means. For example, why are we using the method? To discover truths (Scientific Realism)? Or things that are “merely” instrumentally useful (Instrumentalism)?


Karl Popper argued that the central property of science is falsifiability (i.e. all scientific claims can be proven false, at least in principle, and if no such proof can be found despite sufficient effort then the claim is likely true).

Aside: This all seems a bit too bound-up with the implicit reliance on the validity of the idea of singular existential statements for my comfort – contrast with e.g. E-Prime and General Semantics (Korzybski).

Anything Goes

“The only principle that does not inhibit progress is: anything goes.”

~  Paul Feyerabend, Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge (1975), p.23

In his book “Against Method”, Paul Feyerabend proposed that “anything goes” as “the only overarching methodology which does not inhibit the progress of science” (progress in acquiring knowledge). In his view, (First-world) Science is our new “most aggressive and most dogmatic religious institution.”

Carl Sagan, too, cautions on the need for balance:

“At the heart of science is an essential balance between two seemingly contradictory attitudes – an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive they may be, and the most ruthless skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new. This is how deep truths are winnowed from deep nonsense.”

~ Carl Sagan

As does Richard Feynman:

“But logic is not all; one needs one’s heart to follow an idea.”

~ Richard Feynman, Remarks at a Caltech YMCA lunch forum, 1956.

 and also:

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”

~ Richard P. Feynman

We are all fooled (or awed) by the edifice of First World Science:

“It is surprising to see how rarely the stultifying effects of ‘the Laws of Reason’ or of scientific practice are examined by professional anarchists. Professional anarchists oppose any kind of restriction and they demand that the individual be permitted to develop freely, unhampered by laws, duties or obligations. And yet they swallow without protest all the severe standards which scientists and logicians impose upon research and upon any kind of knowledge-creating and knowledge-changing activity.”

~ Paul Feyerabend, Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge (1975), p.20

Feyerabend advises not only caution, but contrarianism:

“Given any rule, however ‘fundamental’ or ‘necessary’ for science, there are always circumstances when it is advisable not only to ignore the rule, but to adopt its opposite. For example, there are circumstances when it is advisable to introduce, elaborate and defend ad hoc hypotheses, or hypotheses which contradict well-established and generally accepted experimental results, or hypotheses whose content is smaller than the content of the existing and empirically adequate alternative, or self-inconsistent hypotheses, and so on.”

~ Paul Feyerabend, Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge (1975), p.23-24

What it All Means

“Science is an essentially anarchic enterprise: theoretical anarchism is more humanitarian and more likely to encourage progress than its law-and-order alternatives.”

~ Paul Feyerabend, Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge (1975), p.9

Personally, I’m with Feyerabend, and the idea that “anything goes” as the only humane and compassionate “overarching methodology”:

A scientist, an artist, [a developer, a manager,] a citizen is not like a child who needs papa methodology and mama rationality to give him security and direction, he can take care of himself, for he is the inventor not only of laws, theories, pictures, plays, forms of music, ways of dealing with his fellow man, institutions, but also entire world view, he is the inventor of entire forms of like.

~ Paul Feyerabend, Science in a Free Society (1978), p.38

We should not be blinded by our conditioning to other ways of seeking knowledge:

“First-world science is one science among many; by claiming to be more it ceases to be an instrument of research and turns into a (political) pressure group [and tool of oppression and control].”

~ Paul Feyerabend

So when considering my advice about e.g. PDCA and hypotheses, please also consider the context I hand in mind (expanded in this post). As always:

“Think for yourself, in context.”

~ Satoshi Kuroiwa, Agile Japan 2009 Keynote

For the moment, I’ll leave the last word to Feyerabend:

“By now many intellectuals regard theoretical or ‘objective’ knowledge as the only knowledge worth considering. Popper himself encourages the belief by his slander of relativism. Now this conceit would have substance if scientists and philosophers looking for universal and objective morality had succeeded in finding the former and persuaded, rather than forced, dissenting cultures to adopt the latter. This is not the case.”

~ Paul Feyerabend, Farewell to Reason, (1987), p 168

– Bob

Further Reading

Against Method ~ Paul Feyerabend http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Against_Method
Null-A – Recent blog post
“Thinking for yourself in your context” is the heart of Lean – Kenji Hiranabe blog post
Think For Yourself – Jason Yip blog post
The Dialectical Method: An Alternative to the Scientific Method ~ Dybicz and Pyles (pdf)
What Doctors Don’t Know About the Drugs they Prescribe ~ Ben Goldacre (TED video)

1 comment
  1. As a developer I am sceptical that the scientific method can be applied to software projects, given all the imperfections of current software development tools and programming languages, but I think it is better to critique specific instances where it is claimed that the scientific method is being applied when in fact it isn’t (cargo cult science), than to write the whole idea off before it’s even got off the ground. I’m not hopeful, but give it a chance!

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