# Science and Pseudoscience

July 30, 2007 7:20 AM Subscribe

Science and Pseudoscience - a 1973 lecture from Imre Lakatos.

Very happy to see this. We did "Proofs and Refutations" as a play when I studied mathematics in university.

Lakatos was a brilliant man who unfortunately died far too young -- who knows what he'd have accomplished in a full life?

posted by lupus_yonderboy at 7:46 AM on July 30, 2007

Lakatos was a brilliant man who unfortunately died far too young -- who knows what he'd have accomplished in a full life?

posted by lupus_yonderboy at 7:46 AM on July 30, 2007

*But, in 1934, Karl Popper, one of the most influential philosophers of our time, argued that the mathematical probability of all theories, scientific or pseudoscientific, given any amount of evidence is zero. If Popper is right, scientific theories are not only equally unprovable but also equally improbable.*

Interesting. I hadn't heard that before, what is the proof?

posted by delmoi at 8:12 AM on July 30, 2007 [1 favorite]

Lakatos is cool, but I prefer me some Paul Feyarabend.

posted by PeterMcDermott at 9:30 AM on July 30, 2007

posted by PeterMcDermott at 9:30 AM on July 30, 2007

[...] the mathematical probability of all theories, scientific or pseudoscientific, given any amount of evidence is zero.Interesting. I hadn't heard that before, what is the proof?

Scientific theories attempt to describe outcomes for an infinite number of cases (e.g. Newton's laws). The available supporting evidence will always be finite.

To determine the probability of the theory being true, divide the finite available evidence by the required infinite evidence.

posted by tkolar at 9:36 AM on July 30, 2007

Interesting about the development of science through advocating a methodology of scientific research programmes.

However, using political science (Marxism) to explain a degenerating programme seemed a little out of place.

posted by lightweight at 9:45 AM on July 30, 2007

However, using political science (Marxism) to explain a degenerating programme seemed a little out of place.

posted by lightweight at 9:45 AM on July 30, 2007

Philosophy of Science is a honeypot for grad students.

posted by srboisvert at 9:51 AM on July 30, 2007

posted by srboisvert at 9:51 AM on July 30, 2007

*Philosophy of Science is a honeypot for grad students.*

Not in the UK, srboisvert. Here, you're obliged to read all of the main figures in any second year undergraduate social science methods course.

(Or you where back when I was a student.)

posted by PeterMcDermott at 9:58 AM on July 30, 2007

*the mathematical probability of all theories, scientific or pseudoscientific, given any amount of evidence is zero.*

That almost sounds like the guy read the works of Douglas Adams...

[The Restaurant at the End of the Universe:]

It is known that there are an infinite number of worlds, simply because there is an infinite amount of space for them to be in. However, not every one of them is inhabited. Therefore, there must be a finite number of inhabited worlds. Any finite number divided by infinity is as near to nothing as makes no odds, so the average population of all the planets in the Universe can be said to be zero. From this it follows that the population of the whole Universe is also zero, and that any people you may meet from time to time are merely the products of a deranged imagination.posted by DreamerFi at 10:03 AM on July 30, 2007

*However, not every one of them is inhabited. Therefore, there must be a finite number of inhabited worlds*

A subset of an infinite set can still be infinite. Adams didn't study his Popper well enough since thats not what he's saying...

posted by vacapinta at 10:18 AM on July 30, 2007

*[...] the mathematical probability of all theories, scientific or pseudoscientific, given any amount of evidence is zero.*

Interesting. I hadn't heard that before, what is the proof?

Interesting. I hadn't heard that before, what is the proof?

As I understand it, this is due to the huge number of possible theories consistent with any finite amount of evidence. For example, general relativity could be completely correct, except for 6:10am on Christmas Day 1874 somewhere in the Andromeda galaxy. Both theories are equally consistent with all available evidence, so naively we should give them equal probability. As there are an infinitude of such theories, the probability of any must be zero.

One solution, as I understand it, is to choose prior probabilities carefully. What this means is that we must imagine that even with no access to the universe, we would still expect general relativity to have a much greater probability of being true than the cloud of more complicated but similar theories surrounding it. The way to do this is to give simple theories greater prior probability than more complex ones. The principle is very similar to Occam's Razor, but mathematically rigorous (although still arbitrary).

posted by topynate at 12:22 PM on July 30, 2007

Very interesting talk. Kind of left me wanting more though..

There was a great post a couple of years ago: everyone's a scientist. I linked to this list of Pseudo-Science topics, unfortunately only available through an archive link now.

One more that seems relevant: More is Different.

posted by Chuckles at 12:26 PM on July 30, 2007

And this is why the problem of demarcation between science and pseudoscience is not a pseudo-problem of armchair philosophers: it has grave ethical and political implications.Very interesting in the context of Disciplined Minds, which I just finished listening to a little while ago (programs 176 to 201 in the Unwelcome Guests archive - thanks OmieWise!).

There was a great post a couple of years ago: everyone's a scientist. I linked to this list of Pseudo-Science topics, unfortunately only available through an archive link now.

One more that seems relevant: More is Different.

posted by Chuckles at 12:26 PM on July 30, 2007

*As I understand it, this is due to the huge number of possible theories consistent with any finite amount of evidence. For example, general relativity could be completely correct, except for 6:10am on Christmas Day 1874 somewhere in the Andromeda galaxy.*

But the general relativity theory with the adjunct Andromeda bit would not be considered a theory under the falsifiability criteria....

posted by storybored at 6:35 PM on July 30, 2007

*Lakatos is cool, but I prefer me some Paul Feyarabend.*

Hmmm, I don't know much about him, but from reading that link he's not all that impressive.

What is about some academic philosophers of science that make them ignore the obvious?

If I'm not mistaken, Feyarabend is making an equivalence between myth and science. And also missing the plain difference: science

*works*.

posted by storybored at 6:48 PM on July 30, 2007

*But the general relativity theory with the adjunct Andromeda bit would not be considered a theory under the falsifiability criteria....*

Sure it would. If Mercury's orbit were observed to behave according to Newtonian mechanics, that would falsify general relativity as it's commonly understood, and it would also falsify general relativity with the adjunct Andromeda bit.

posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:19 AM on July 31, 2007

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posted by Wolfdog at 7:25 AM on July 30, 2007