“Gathering of philosophers and physicists unaware of modern reconciliation of Bayes and Popper” by Andrew Gelman
Hiro Minato points us to a news article by physicist Natalie Wolchover entitled “A Fight for the Soul of Science.”
I have no problem with most of the article, which is a report about controversies within physics regarding the purported untestability of physics models such as string theory (as for example discussed by my Columbia colleague Peter Woit). Wolchover writes:
Whether the fault lies with theorists for getting carried away, or with nature, for burying its best secrets, the conclusion is the same: Theory has detached itself from experiment. The objects of theoretical speculation are now too far away, too small, too energetic or too far in the past to reach or rule out with our earthly instruments. . . .
Over three mild winter days, scholars grappled with the meaning of theory, confirmation and truth; how science works; and whether, in this day and age, philosophy should guide research in physics or the other way around. . . .
To social and behavioral scientists, this is all an old old story. Concepts such as personality, political ideology, and social roles are undeniably important but only indirectly related to any measurements. In social science we’ve forever been in the unavoidable position of theorizing without sharp confirmation or falsification, and, indeed, unfalsifiable theories such as Freudian psychology and rational choice theory have been central to our understanding of much of the social world.
But then somewhere along the way the discussion goes astray:
Falsificationism is no longer the reigning philosophy of science. . . . Nowadays, as several philosophers at the workshop said, Popperian falsificationism has been supplanted by Bayesian confirmation theory . . . Bayesianism allows for the fact that modern scientific theories typically make claims far beyond what can be directly observed — no one has ever seen an atom — and so today’s theories often resist a falsified-unfalsified dichotomy. Instead, trust in a theory often falls somewhere along a continuum, sliding up or down between 0 and 100 percent as new information becomes available.
Noooooooooo! As Cosma Shalizi and I argue, “the most successful forms of Bayesian statistics do not actually support that particular philosophy [of inductive inference] but rather accord much better with sophisticated forms of hypothetico-deductivism.”
As reporting, the article is excellent. But it seems that nobody in the room was aware of the “Bayesian Data Analysis” view in which Bayesian models can and should be checked. We have to do more communicating. Naive Popperianism is bad, but so is naive anti-Popperianism. Lakatos would be spinning in his grave.
Readers can search this blog for many posts on what I regard to be an improvement on Popper. Notably, I provide a more satisfactory notion of severe tests that accomplishes what Popper intended without the oversimplifications. Had Popper been more aware of statistical methods, my guess is that he would have taken the “error statistical turn”.
Share your comments.
In a letter to me (on my notion of severe tests), Popper said he wished he was more familiar with statistical developments.