Falsifiability or ‘refutability’ is a characteristic of hypothesis, conjecture or theory to be proved false through observation or an experiment. An idea being falsifiable does not directly translate into it being false. This is due to the fact that the idea can be proved whether it is false by observation or conducting an experiment. For example a statement such as “all swans are white” can be proved to be false when a black swan is seen. However, a statement such as “there is a black swan somewhere” can only be falsified by making an inspection of all swans and failing to identify the black swan (Debunking Primal Therapy, n.d, para. 1-4).
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Falsifiability is an important concept in science as introduced by Karl Popper who was a British philosopher. Karl concluded that a theory is considered to be true if it can be scientifically proved. He proposed falsifiability to be a procedure for classifying what is science and what is not. In addition, he held that psychological theories such as the Freudian psychoanalysis were not science due to their non-falsifiable nature. For example, a patient who differs with his physician is simply denying the truth and any divergent discussion or behavior by the patient can be attributed to the patient’s effort to strengthen this denial (On Philosophy, 2007, para. 7).
Falsifiability and Science
Falsifiability is an important idea in philosophy of science since it dictates that a theory cannot be to be scientific if it does not allow the possibility of being proved false. Karl Popper suggested this criterion as a basic method for empirical sciences and insisted that authentic scientific theories are not normally completely confirmed since falsifying these theories is always possible no matter how far the confirmation process has gone. Science commonly uses procedures based on falsifiable hypotheses developed through systematic empiricism. Those hypotheses that do not give room for disapproval are rejected for not being real science. Most scientists believe that a hypothesis can never be proved but is only falsified (Rossman, 2009, p. 3).
Systematic empiricism is an organized observation in an attempt to understand an idea better. Organizing an observation helps one in obtaining all or most out of an experiment. Since there are many errors that can be encountered in the course of performing an experiment, a close observation and knowledge of what one is look for during such observations reduces chances of errors occurring. The ideal way of observation is to have two hypotheses and run tests on both to see whether they were correct.
Scientific statements like “gravitational pull of objects towards earth is 9.78m/s2” can be experimented by letting an object fall freely towards the earth and calculating this pull. If the object does not fall or the figures differ with a large margin, then the statement is falsified.
Importance of the Falsifiability Criterion to Psychology
The Freudian Psychoanalysis theories have been found to be invalid by modern psychologists. This arises from the fact that this is a very diverse field and finding unifying theories is almost impossible. These theories use complicated concepts to explain human behavior after the fact is established but do not foretell these behaviors before this fact. In addition, the theories explain everything and this makes them scientifically unusable, besides they make no precise predictions. Progress can only take place when a theory does not predict everything but instead make precise predictions that provide us with information in advance. These theories have been criticized for their failure to admit the possibility of a falsification process and go against the principle of falsifiability of theories. Though the predictions may not be right, this is viewed as strength and not a weakness (Popper, 1962, para. 6).
If a theory is unfalsifiable, then it should not be used to find solutions for actual events in the world and this renders theories such as those of Sigmund Freud useless.
Psychology has been flooded with unfalsifiable theories and this has weighed down progress in the field. Examples include books that encourage the use of non-scientific remedies in a bid to sell many copies (Rossman, 2009, p. 1).
The falsifiability criterion is thus an important aspect to the discipline of psychology as it ensures that only scientific-based therapies are used to find solutions.
An example of a psychological theory that can be falsified is The Bystander Effect. This theory states that the greater the number of people around you, the less they are likely to help you when you are in distress. Pluralistic ignorance is where we assume that nothing is wrong and we go on with our normal activities. Falsification of this theory can be undertaken by performing a series of experiments in which a subject is placed in a room with two other participants in a normal class setting and smoke introduced in the room. A record is then taken on the percentage of those who report the smoke. A second experiment is undertaken with more participants and the procedure repeated. If the two percentages are not significantly varied or the second experiment records a higher percentage, then the theory is falsified.
A theory that cannot be falsified is The Acquiescence Effect. This theory states that when questioned by another person, our answer is not based on a thorough understanding of what is being asked. Our inner self or identity dictates how we give our answers and we therefore tend to give more answers that are positive than negative especially if a leading question is asked. Questions such as “do you have university qualification?” will likely lead to a positive answer. The right question should be “what is your educational level?” This is a generally held theory and its falsification is a near impossibility since the “identity” or “inner self” is not quantifiable by any scientific process.
The purpose of a theory is to explain some facet of the world. It is no wonder these explanations are called theories and may be scientific or not. A good theory must state how things occur in one way and eliminate all the other possibilities. The best way to test whether a theory can be adopted is to check whether they can be proved false (falsified), if the theory cannot be falsified then it does not properly explain the facet, or the objects of the theory are not connected to the actual world. Hence, to be considered as scientific or falsifiable, a theory must have two properties. These include:
- There must be a way of quantifying the objects of the theory with a given level of accuracy. This therefore eliminates those theories that use unobservable events such as ego, inner self or non-existent beings as it is evident in most of Freudian theories.
- The theories must also be able to explain how the various objects posited by the theory interact with the actual world. Physics is an example where theories are tied to directly measurable quantities and the objects have a direct contact with the actual world for example volume, mass and gravity (On Philosophy, 2007, para. 5).
- Debunking Primal Therapy. (n. d.). Falsifiability- Testable?
- On Philosophy. (2007). Good and Bad Theories.
- Popper, K. (1962). Science, Pseudo-Science, and Falsifiability.
- Rossman, J. (2009). Falsifiability.