Karl Popper was a 20th century philosopher of science, best known for his work on falsifiability. He was critical of the ideas put forth by previous philosophers such as Carnap, that science works by verifying your theories through examination of the world. He said that many theories that were not scientific could be successfully verified by either making vague predictions, or through ad hoc adjustments to the theory. For example a horoscope can predict something vague like “you will have a pleasant surprise later this week”. Then you find some forgotten money in your pocket, and the horoscope was seemingly verified to be true! However since nearly anything could have verified it, since it was so vague, this does not count as science.

He was particularly critical of Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis and Marx’s theory of historical materialism, both of which were considered scientific by many at the time, but seemed to explain almost all sets of observable data. Instead he suggested that scientific theories must put forwards highly specific predictions, and the scientists must then work to falsify, rather than verify, the theory.

My criticism of Popper’s argument is that saying Marxism isn’t a science because it can’t make overly specific predictions of on to the-minute events is like saying Meteorology isn’t scientific because you can’t predict a tornado will strike at a certain time in a certain state and last for this many minutes.

Historical materialism was accepted by fact by even mainstream neoliberal economists like Adam Smith all the way up until it became cool to hate the Soviets for liberating their country from monarchs and capitalists.

Popper’s (non-Marxist) disciple Paul Feyerabend pretty well undermined Popper’s view, essentially showing that many interesting and foundational scientific discoveries could not have been made if we exclusively followed the mode of what Popper calls science.

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Absolutely, because it depends on how you define “vague”. For example, for a long time proving that Earth revolves around the Sun was considered good science, regardless of the fact that it does not constitute what is the orbit like. Then it became refined into “circular”, then “elliptical” and so on. So the vagueness changes with time to becoming less and less vague.

Albeit an important one, the scientific method is only one of the building blocks of science. If using it was the singular measure of whether you are engaging in a scientific activity, then all mathematicians, theoretical physicists, statisticians, computer and data scientists, zoologists and botanists, geographers, and medical doctors would be practicing hocus-pocus, despite still somehow always publishing worthwhile results. Collecting specimens, sorting and organising data, computing simulations, coming up with suitable definitions, solving problems, and proving theorems are exactly as important parts of science as prediction and empirical inquiry. One of these parts is also to establish the most reliable and parsimonious frameworks in which the social sciences such as economics, sociology, or psychology can operate, a function that is precisely fulfilled by Marxism. These disciplines don’t employ Marxist theory because their pursuers are sympathetic to socialism (Spoiler: They mostly aren’t), but because the reality of doing economics, sociology, and psychology forces it on them to the point they cannot escape it.

I like Popper’s falsifiability idea and I like his critical thinking style in general. His philosophy works are good to read. I recommend the myth of the framework. When you see his style I can understand why he’d not have much patience for Marx’s dialectics.

On the flip side, Popper never used those critical thinking skills on himself. He was critical of Marx but then he became part of the Neo Liberal scene and founded the Mont Pelerin Society with the likes of Hayek and Mises. Like ok if you don’t want to class economics as a science that’s one thing but don’t go and side with these clowns.

Another example of his lack of self awareness is his staunch defense of Cartesian dualism which completely contridicts his falsifiability idea.

So, I have mixed feelings about Popper. He’s worth reading but also worth reading about as he’s partly full of shit.

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I also really like the idea of falsifiability, but Popper seemed to not apply it at all when it came to communist countries, being blinded by western propaganda.

In his lifetime the USSR became a world superpower despite starting out at an extremely low level of economic development, won a world war and saved the world from fascism, eliminated illiteracy, raised life expectancy, and went into space.

Marx lived in a transitional period where the scientific method hadn’t fully taken hold.

Later scholars have resoundingly confirmed his economic theories with more rigorous methods, even though their focus may differ from his. For instance Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century is incomparable for its thoroughness and absolutely trounces liberal economics.

Breht and Alyson talk about this in their episode on Socialism: Utopian and Scientific when they talk about how Marxism is a science. Breht brought up some events that could falsify key pillars of Marxist thought (around 1:25 in)

  • Anarcho-capitalism gets established
  • If liberal democracy is able to resolve class conflict
  • A non-Marxist left ideology is able to lead and defend a world revolution
  • Fascism and imperialism is rooted out of liberal society

Any of these events happening would crush key views of Marxism.

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