Monday, June 14, 2010

Karl Popper and the Black Swan

I was reading the novel 'The Black Swan' by Nassim Nicholas Taleb during the winter of '08-'09. Since the internet has become just a click away, as a habit I read reviews and make general google research on the book and the author that I am reading. It was during one of these research readings that I came across Karl Popper - who is generally regarded as one of greatest philosophers of science. Being a student of science for most of my life it was surprising, and ignorant of me, to not have heard of the man and his contributions. Nevertheless, I tried to make amends and read a sufficient amount of material on the man. To write a post on a personality, let alone a philosopher is a herculean task and beyond the scope of the post. More importantly I cannot safely say I have read enough of his work to really build an article on the subject. Instead what I will do is introduce Karl Popper, if you are not already introduced to him, with slices of material I read with regard to Black Swan, Nicholas Taleb and Karl Popper.

Writing for the New York Times, Taleb starts his article/book with this paragraph.
Before the discovery of Australia, people in the old world were convinced that all swans were white, an unassailable belief as it seemed completely confirmed by empirical evidence. The sighting of the first black swan might have been an interesting surprise for a few ornithologists (and others extremely concerned with the coloring of birds), but that is not where the significance of the story lies. It illustrates a severe limitation to our learning from observations or experience and the fragility of our knowledge. One single observation can invalidate a general statement derived from millennia of confirmatory sightings of millions of white swans. All you need is one single (and, I am told, quite ugly) black bird. 
He goes on to elaborate on the subject and give a three characteristic of a Black Swan event and more. Also, the following set of paragraphs would allow you to see the link between Taleb and Popper.

Every genuine scientific theory then, in Karl Popper's view, is prohibitive, in the sense that it forbids, by implication, particular events or occurrences. As such it can be tested and falsified, but never logically verified. Thus Popper stresses that it should not be inferred from the fact that a theory has withstood the most rigorous testing, for however long a period of time, that it has been verified; rather we should recognize that such a theory has received a high measure of corroboration. and may be provisionally retained as the best available theory until it is finally falsified (if indeed it is ever falsified), and/or is superseded by a better theory.

Popper has always drawn a clear distinction between the logic of falsifiability and its applied methodology. The logic of his theory is utterly simple: if a single ferrous metal is unaffected by a magnetic field it cannot be the case that all ferrous metals are affected by magnetic fields. Logically speaking, a scientific law is conclusively falsifiable although it is not conclusively verifiable. Methodologically, however, the situation is much more complex: no observation is free from the possibility of error—consequently we may question whether our experimental result was what it appeared to be.

Thus, while advocating falsifiability as the criterion of demarcation for science, Popper explicitly allows for the fact that in practice a single conflicting or counter-instance is never sufficient methodologically to falsify a theory, and that scientific theories are often retained even though much of the available evidence conflicts with them, or is anomalous with respect to them. Scientific theories may, and do, arise genetically in many different ways, and the manner in which a particular scientist comes to formulate a particular theory may be of biographical interest, but it is of no consequence as far as the philosophy of science is concerned. Popper stresses in particular that there is no unique way, no single method such as induction, which functions as the route to scientific theory, a view which Einstein personally endorsed with his affirmation that ‘There is no logical path leading to [the highly universal laws of science]. They can only be reached by intuition, based upon something like an intellectual love of the objects of experience’. Science, in Popper's view, starts with problems rather than with observations—it is, indeed, precisely in the context of grappling with a problem that the scientist makes observations in the first instance: his observations are selectively designed to test the extent to which a given theory functions as a satisfactory solution to a given problem.
My personal favorite is this paragraph.
In the view of many social scientists, the more probable a theory is, the better it is, and if we have to choose between two theories which are equally strong in terms of their explanatory power, and differ only in that one is probable and the other is improbable, then we should choose the former. Popper rejects this. Science, or to be precise, the working scientist, is interested, in Popper's view, in theories with a high informative content, because such theories possess a high predictive power and are consequently highly testable. But if this is true, Popper argues, then, paradoxical as it may sound, the more improbable a theory is the better it is scientifically, because the probability and informative content of a theory vary inversely—the higher the informative content of a theory the lower will be its probability, for the more information a statement contains, the greater will be the number of ways in which it may turn out to be false. Thus the statements which are of special interest to the scientist are those with a high informative content and (consequentially) a low probability, which nevertheless come close to the truth. Informative content, which is in inverse proportion to probability, is in direct proportion to testability. Consequently the severity of the test to which a theory can be subjected, and by means of which it is falsified or corroborated, is all-important. 
Even after reading some of the articles on Popper, I am yet to completely understand and make my personal comment on his work. Nevertheless, I think he makes sense to me almost always and that encourages me to read more of him. Need to get hold of some of his written works. Suggestion in that regard would be most helpful.

To conclude here is what William W. Bartley has to say about Popper:
Sir Karl Popper is not really a participant in the contemporary professional philosophical dialogue; quite the contrary, he has ruined that dialogue. If he is on the right track, then the majority of professional philosophers the world over has wasted or is wasting their intellectual careers. The gulf between Popper's way of doing philosophy and that of the bulk of professional philosophers is as great as that between astronomy and astrology.

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