Posts Tagged With: Paul Meehl

Heads I win, tails you lose? Meehl and many Popperians get this wrong (about severe tests)!


bending of starlight.

[T]he impressive thing about the 1919 tests of Einstein ‘s theory of gravity] is the risk involved in a prediction of this kind. If observation shows that the predicted effect is definitely absent, then the theory is simply refuted. The theory is incompatible with certain possible results of observation—in fact with results which everybody before Einstein would have expected. This is quite different from the situation I have previously described, [where] was practically impossible to describe any human behavior that might not be claimed to be a verification of these [psychological] theories.” (Popper, CR, [p. 36))


Popper lauds Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity (GTR) as sticking its neck out, bravely being ready to admit its falsity were the deflection effect not found. The truth is that even if no deflection effect had been found in the 1919 experiments it would have been blamed on the sheer difficulty in discerning so small an effect (the results that were found were quite imprecise.) This would have been entirely correct! Yet many Popperians, perhaps Popper himself, get this wrong.[i] Listen to Popperian Paul Meehl (with whom I generally agree).

The stipulation beforehand that one will be pleased about substantive theory T when the numerical results come out as forecast, but will not necessarily abandon it when they do not, seems on the face of it to be about as blatant a violation of the Popperian commandment as you could commit. For the investigator, in a way, is doing…what astrologers and Marxists and psychoanalysts allegedly do, playing heads I win, tails you lose.” (Meehl 1978, 821)

No, there is a confusion of logic. A successful result may rightly be taken as evidence for a real effect H, even though failing to find the effect need not be taken to refute the effect, or even as evidence as against H. This makes perfect sense if one keeps in mind that a test might have had little chance to detect the effect, even if it existed. The point really reflects the asymmetry of falsification and corroboration. Popperian Alan Chalmers wrote an appendix to a chapter of his book, What is this Thing Called Science? (1999)(which at first had criticized severity for this) once I made my case. [i] Continue reading

Categories: fallacy of non-significance, philosophy of science, Popper, Severity, Statistics | Tags: | 2 Comments

Blog at