The decline of falsifiability

July 25, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedRecently there has been much discussion and debate on the revelations of government surveillance programs. While I think the specifics of those revelations, and the debate around them, are interesting in themselves, I think the manner in which the debate is happening points to a deeper issue that our society is facing that I haven’t seen addressed: the decline of falsifiability.

Bruce Schneier asked recently what it would take before we believe what companies say about their cooperation in government surveillance programs. This same question can be asked in many other contexts, but let’s start with the one he asked it in.

The key difficulty here is falsifiability, or rather the lack of it. The surveillance programs the companies may or may not be involved in are secret. The application of publicly-passed laws relies upon a secret interpretation of those laws, presented before a secret court. Most members of congress (e.g., those outside of the Gang of Eight), who vote on the budgets for these secret programs and for the laws that are used before the secret court, are not fully aware of the programs or their use. And when these secret interpretations of laws are applied in secret programs to conduct surveillance, those who are ordered by the secret court to comply must themselves keep their involvement secret.

Thus our national security laws have moved us to a non-falsifiable world. That is, a government official may claim that these policies have “made us safer” or a company spokesperson can deny involvement in the programs, and it is essentially impossible for us to determine whether their statements are true or false (or more broadly to know the extent of the surveillance programs: who is involved, how, and what they’re doing). The key aspect to falsifiability is not that we care about something being true or false, right or wrong, but rather that we care that something can be shown to be true or false, right or wrong (or even some shade of gray). That gives us confidence that we can use evidence to guide our decisions and change course. When no evidence can be presented one way or the other, we exit the realm of the falsifiable.

One of the strengths of science is that is rooted not in fact, as it’s often described, but in falsifiability. (Obviously a lot has been written on this before; Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is of course worth reading to understand potential pitfalls.) Without falsifiability, we end up in a pseudoscience or faith-based world — faith not in the specific sense of religion, but more broadly in the sense of belief in the absence of seen evidence.

So the decline of falsifiability is clearly seen in this first category: the non-falsifiable.

One reason, I think, that modern representative democracies generally embrace science not just for understanding the world but also as a process of reasoning about policy is that it allows for issues to be resolved relatively cleanly. Debates do not need to be had ad nauseum without resolution because evidence can be presented to help resolve them. Without a process built upon falsifiability, we encourage two problematic ways of thinking about problems (that are mostly but not completely independent): conspiracy theory and ideology. Most conspiracy theories are non-falsifiable: they hinge on some set of assertions for which there exists no hypothetical evidence that can be used to disprove the theory. Most ideologies rely upon faith regardless of evidence that disproves part or all of the ideology.

A large fraction of debates appear to fall into this second and growing category: the falsifiability-irrelevant.

These are things that are falsifiable, but a presentation of evidence causes no shift in societal views. That is, they are driven by ideology. Trickle-down and austerity economics, and anthropogenic climate change are examples of this. In the former case, the evidence indicates it is a flawed theory but its adherents don’t care; more recently, a core pillar of austerity economics (as implemented in current policy) was debunked but to little effect among its proponents. In the latter case a large body of evidence indicates that it is a sound theory and yet its detractors don’t care.

A little over a decade ago, Carl Sagan warned about the prevalence of pseudoscience, and attempted to make a statement about what differentiates a society based upon science from one based upon pseudoscience. It was an important argument about the importance of falsifiability from an important scientist. (It’s a shame that Sagan didn’t think to put his own technological utopian beliefs under the same microscope as many of the other beliefs he skewered.) However, one of the key points Sagan made is that the decline in scientific thinking is a major issue not because pseudoscience is on the rise — as he argued, probably correctly, it’s been with us and will always be with us. Rather the danger is that we live in a society with greater technological power than ever before — power to shape the entire global ecosystem — and shouldn’t wield that power without a greater understanding of science.

The two categories above — the non-falsifiable and the falsifiability-irrelevant — together contribute to a growing issue: the non-discreditable. We see that many ideologies cannot be permanently discredited. Similarly, individuals can safely hold just about any viewpoint on many issues, either because they can’t be proven wrong or nobody cares even if they are; thus we see many pundits, thinkers, and political leaders who can’t be discredited in the eyes of the media. No matter what they say or do, their viewpoints are considered legitimate and need no supporting evidence. When contrary evidence is presented, it is quickly swept under the rug. That is, ideology trumps everything.

To return to the surveillance example, James Clapper (now Director of National Intelligence) is just one example of many — he led a team that made huge mistakes in the leadup to the Iraq war, and now he’s having to “correct the record” on statements he made to congress. In both cases his statements were in line with ideology, if not with reality. Many of his other statements are simply non-falsifiable. The list of such individuals and ideas in modern American life is long, and you can find them in both the public and private sectors.

While we should evaluate each statement on its own merits, reputation matters: what someone has said in the past affects how we judge their current thinking. When we find out that certain people who argued that smoking does not contribute to cancer are now arguing that carbon dioxide does not contribute to climate change, their past position certainly seems relevant, and it seems that they should be discredited in the eyes of the public. But they aren’t.

We may now be in a time with the largest fraction of the world’s human population living in capitalist representative democracies, and despite the fact that these societies are rooted in some sense in scientific decision-making, we find that they are unable to confront the grand problems they face — climate change, resource depletion, and ecological overshoot — due to the decline of falsifiability and the rise of unshakable ideology.

Many ancient societies were ruled by claims of divine right; royal proclamations were not falsifiable. Post-Magna Carta England was more responsive, for example, than other old societies, but not as much so as today’s England. But we don’t have to look to the distant past to see what it looks like for dogma to trump reason. A few decades ago Vaclav Havel wrote in The Power of the Powerless, in the context of Soviet Czechoslovakia, a warning well worth heeding:

Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them. As the repository of something suprapersonal and objective, it enables people to deceive their conscience and conceal their true position and their inglorious modus vivendi, both from the world and from themselves. It is a very pragmatic but, at the same time, an apparently dignified way of legitimizing what is above, below, and on either side. It is directed toward people and toward God. It is a veil behind which human beings can hide their own fallen existence, their trivialization, and their adaptation to the status quo. It is an excuse that everyone can use, from the greengrocer, who conceals his fear of losing his job behind an alleged interest in the unification of the workers of the world, to the highest functionary, whose interest in staying in power can be cloaked in phrases about service to the working class. The primary excusatory function of ideology, therefore, is to provide people, both as victims and pillars of the post-totalitarian system, with the illusion that the system is in harmony with the human order and the order of the universe…


…Yet, as we have seen, ideology becomes at the same time an increasingly important component of power, a pillar providing it with both excusatory legitimacy and an inner coherence. As this aspect grows in importance, and as it gradually loses touch with reality, it acquires a peculiar but very real strength. It becomes reality itself, albeit a reality altogether self-contained, one that on certain levels (chiefly inside the power structure) may have even greater weight than reality as such. Increasingly, the virtuosity of the ritual becomes more important than the reality hidden behind it. The significance of phenomena no longer derives from the phenomena themselves, but from their locus as concepts in the ideological context. Reality does not shape theory, but rather the reverse. Thus power gradually draws closer to ideology than it does to reality; it draws its strength from theory and becomes entirely dependent on it. This inevitably leads, of course, to a paradoxical result: rather than theory, or rather ideology, serving power, power begins to serve ideology. It is as though ideology had appropriated power from power, as though it had become dictator itself. It then appears that theory itself, ritual itself, ideology itself, makes decisions that affect people, and not the other way around.

Barath Raghavan

Barath Raghavan is a computer scientist who writes about the intersection of energy, environmental, and technological issues.

Tags: ideology, science