Conjectures and Refutations


Having been reminded of Karl Popper and his influence on others, including George Soros, I decided to take another look at some of his writings which have been sitting in my bookcase for very many years. It’s been a long time since I first read, for instance ‘Objective Knowledge’ and ‘Conjectures & Refutations’, books which for me were quite eye-opening at the time.  They showed me another way of looking at the world, one not dependent on religion or indeed received wisdom. However, what I would like to discuss mainly is the approach taken by Karl Popper as regards governance, set against a little of the background to the development of his main philosophical ideas.

Winston Churchill said that ‘democracy was the worst form of government - apart from all the others’. Popper arrives at a similar conclusion, but shows his workings. In order to see what he is saying, however, we need to go back to the whole idea of ‘conjectures and refutations’, or, more exactly ‘conjectures which can be refuted’.

Karl Popper was born in Vienna in 1902.  His early contemporary influences were Marxism and the psychoanalytical theories of Adler, whom he met and worked with briefly on a social project. Popper takes as his starting point for a criticism both of Marxism and other nebulous systems of thought, the idea of Astrology. Predicting peoples’ futures has been around for ever, with people gulling others by making predictions about their love-life and such like things. 

It was in a way formalised by relating their predictions to people’s so-called star signs and so bringing into being the idea of Astrology. It gave a veneer of objectivity to what was being said. However, such was the concern of Galileo not to be taken in by its irrationality, that he rejected the idea that the gravitational pull of the moon caused the tides - it seemed just too much like astrology.  Newton, for the same reason, in developing his theory of gravity, accepted the moon’s influence, but with much hesitation.

As Popper has said: “Astrologers have always been greatly impressed, and misled, by what they believed to be confirming evidence - so much so that they were quite unimpressed by any unfavourable evidence. Moreover, by making their interpretations and prophecies sufficiently vague they were able to explain away anything that might have been a refutation of the theory, had the theory and the prophecies been more precise. In order to escape falsification they destroyed the testability of their theory. It is a typical soothsayer's trick to predict things so vaguely that the predictions can hardly fail: that they become irrefutable.”.

He found similar fault with the psychoanalytic theories of Freud and Adler. He rejected them, having realised that: “… every conceivable case could be interpreted in the light of Adler's theory, or equally of Freud's. I may illustrate this by two very different examples of human behaviour: that of a man who pushes a child into the water with the intention of drowning it; and that of a man who sacrifices his life in an attempt to save the child. Each of these two cases can be explained with equal ease in Freudian and in Adlerian terms. According to Freud the first man suffered from repression (say, of some component of his Oedipus complex), while the second man had achieved sublimation. According to Adler the first man suffered from feelings of inferiority (producing perhaps the need to prove to himself that he dared to commit some crime), and so did the second man (whose need was to prove to himself that he dared to rescue the child). I could not think of any human behaviour which could not be interpreted in terms of either theory. It was precisely this fact - that they always fitted - which in the eyes of their admirers constituted the strongest argument in favour of these theories. It began to dawn on me that this apparent strength was in fact their weakness.”
Marxism was of course put forward as a scientific theory, making predictions as to how the world would develop. As Popper goes on to say: “The Marxist theory of history, in spite of the serious efforts of some of its founders and followers, ultimately adopted this soothsaying practice. In some of its earlier formulations (for example in Marx's analysis of the character of the 'coming social revolution') their predictions were testable, and in fact falsified. What was predicted did not happen”. The predicted downfall of capitalism is still somewhat overdue. “Yet instead of accepting the refutations, the followers of Marx re-interpreted both the theory and the evidence in order to make them agree. In this way they rescued the theory from refutation; but they did so at the price of making it irrefutable. Typically, they introduce “some ad hoc auxiliary assumption, or re-interpret the theory ad hoc in such a way that it escapes refutation.”. They redacted the specifics and retained only generalisations, none of which are testable in an objective way. Unsurprisingly, Popper became disillusioned with Marxism and abandoned it fairly early on.

He wished to find a way of distinguishing, demarcating the difference between theories he saw as unconvincing, because they could never be disproved on the one hand, and something like Einstein’s theory of relativity which had very specific predictions built in. These have since been tested and not yet shown to be wanting. And so the idea of the possibility of the refutation of a conjecture, its falsifiability, became his test of what should, in effect, be taken seriously and what should be regarded as metaphysics.

And so we come on to the question of political systems more generally. We don’t normally treat government policy as a series of experiments designed to tell us whether they work or not.  They are policies held, sometimes fervently, by supporters of a government and equally fervently opposed by those not in government. His wish was to see a system of government which allowed the electors to see the result of the implementation of policies – what were in fact the experiments undertaken - and take action accordingly.  He does not see democracy as having any ‘higher’ justification or that vox populi should be seen as the ultimate arbiter of what is right in some theoretical sense. Instead he asks simply that the people be given the power at regular intervals to remove governments which have failed. He takes an entirely pragmatic view of democracy: it is there to stop incompetence and corruption.

Rejecting the question ‘Who should rule?’ as the fundamental question of political theory, Popper proposed a new question: “How can we so organize political institutions so that bad or incompetent rulers can be prevented from doing too much damage?” It is a question of institutional design, Popper said. Democracy happens to be the best type of political system because it goes a long way toward solving this problem by providing a non-violent, institutionalized and regular way to get rid of bad rulers - namely by voting them out of office. For Popper, the value of democracy did not reside in the fact that the people are sovereign. They are not. He said, “the people do not rule anywhere, it is always governments that rule”.

For this reason he tends to the view that proportional representation is not a good idea. He sees coalition governments as clouding the waters. Where politicians from a number of parties agree a common manifesto, representing some but not all of what each party thinks, then it is very difficult to know whom to blame if it – the experiment - goes wrong. In addition, with minor changes to coalition partners it is possible for a major party to stay in power for far longer than would be the case with a first past the post system. But then, where first past the post is in place, most political parties are even more of the nature of coalitions than in other jurisdictions. We see this at the moment both here and in the USA, where the range of views in each of the major parties is very wide indeed. Where proportional representation exists, there is more of an incentive to break away and form new small parties to represent the extremes - the likelihood is that they will be asked to take part in a coalition anyway. This in turn in my view allows more easily of the evolution of the political scene.

Although democracies permit the change of government without bloodshed, nonetheless Popper expressed the hope that public opinion and the institutions that influence it - universities, the press, political parties, cinema, television, and so forth - could become more rational over time by embracing the scientific tradition of critical discussion. He wanted us all to be willing to submit our ideas to public criticism and take up the habit of listening carefully to other people’s points of view. 

Maybe one day?!

Paul Buckingham

14 October 2020

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