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What Karl Marx and George Bush Have In Common

The biggest lesson from Popper’s philosophy is that skepticism is the ultimate open-mindedness.

The Proverbial Skeptic is in a good mood, and so for once let’s examine an aphorism which we support, rather than seek to take down.

“In so far as a scientific statement speaks about reality, it must be falsifiable; and in so far as it is not falsifiable, it does not speak about reality.”

It’s one of the best moments from the history of argument: Karl Popper, in his landmark work on what distinguishes Science from Non-Science, completely eviscerates two famous thinkers’ theories: Marxist history, and Freudian psychoanalysis.

What’s more, the take down of Freudianism and Marxism appears as a side note. In the introduction. To an essay on an unrelated topic.


A little background information:

Popper’s paper is called Conjectures and Refutations. In it, he put forth the now nearly ubiquitously accepted theory that science is science in so far as it adheres to “principles of falsification”

All that really means is that science is a good method of pursuing knowledge because scientists look to disprove their theories. They have explicit terms by which they can be proven wrong. 

The classic example of this, and the one which Popper uses, is of Einstein’s Theory of Gravitation. Einstein had postulated a theory which said, among other things, that gravity can change the path of light rays (gravitational lensing). Popper holds this up as an exemplary scientific theory because of what happened in 1919.

In 1919, there was an eclipse. Einstein had just proposed his theory that massive bodies would bend the path of light rays. If Einstein was right, then light from far-off stars would appear to be in a different place than it ought to be based on astronomical predictions.

But it had not been tested, because the sun is the only nearby object massive enough to produce that effect noticeably. Unfortunately, scientists could not use this test because light from other stars which was passing by the sun was lost in the glare.

And that’s while the total solar eclipse was so important. It allowed scientists to look and test whether the terms predicted by Einstein’s theory were reflected by reality. If things were not as the theory predicted, the theory would be thrown away. That is what, according to Popper, makes it scientific.

Two in the Bush: A truly bad theory finds confirmation everywhere.

Twice during the early days of The Iraq War, in consecutive months, George Bush claimed that America was winning. He based this theory on a different claim each time.

The first time, his rationale was that America was winning the war because instances of insurgency were down. Therefore, he argued, we must be making progress.

The second time, his rationale was that America was winning because instances of insurgency were up. Surely, if they are attacking us more, then we are getting to them. Therefore, he argued, we must be making progress.

But what does this have to do with Freud and Marx?

It’s counter-intuitive:

Just as science is a good method of pursuing knowledge because scientists look to disprove their theories, non-science is a bad method of pursuing knowledge because non-scientists look to confirm their theories.

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That’s what went so drastically wrong with George Bush’s reasoning. 

From Popper’s paper: 

“What worried me [about Marxism and Freudianism] was neither the problem of truth, at that stage at least, nor the problem of exactness or measurability. It was rather that I felt that these other theories, though posing as sciences, had in fact more in common with primitive myths than with science; that they resembled astrology rather than astronomy.”

He goes on: “I found that those of my friends who were admirers of Marx, Freud, and Adler, were impressed by a number of points common to these theories, and especially by their apparent explanatory power. These theories appeared to be able to explain practically everything that happened within the fields to which they referred. The study of any of them seemed to have the effect of an intellectual conversion or revelation, opening your eyes to a new truth hidden from those not yet initiated. Once your eyes were thus opened you saw confirming instances everywhere: the world was full of verifications of the theory. Whatever happened always confirmed it. Thus its truth appeared manifest; and unbelievers were clearly people who did not want to see the manifest truth; who refused to see it, either because it was against their class interest, or because of their repressions which were still ‘un-analysed’ and crying aloud for treatment. 

“The most characteristic element in this situation seemed to me the incessant stream of confirmations, of observations which ‘verified’ the theories in question; and this point was constantly emphasized by their adherents. A Marxist could not open a newspaper without finding on every page confirming evidence for his interpretation of history; not only in the news, but also in its presentation–which revealed the class bias of the paper–and especially of course in what the paper did not say. The Freudian analysts emphasized that their theories were constantly verified by their ‘clinical observations’.”

What’s the big idea?

The big lesson from Popper’s philosophy is that skepticism is the ultimate open-mindedness.


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