Sheeplock and Dachson were selected as judges for the local summer wine fair in town. A variety of local wineries were on site, hoping to win one of the coveted awards and sell a lot of wine in the process. Our duo would pick the winners of several categories from red to white, dry, sweet, chilled and bubbly. They loved the event and took their role seriously. While visiting the different tents they heard a commotion and rushed to investigate. Two wineries were in a heated exchange with one claiming the other had sabotaged their wines so they couldn’t win.
Sensing they had more duties than usual during this wine fair, Sheeplock and Dachson immediately quieted everyone and got some more information. It seems the Smythe Brothers Winery was accusing Fair Twins Winery of adding just a bit of vinegar to their wines to make them taste off. When asked how, Smythe Brothers said the Fair Twins had a secret tool that let them insert the vinegar without leaving a mark, which they used and then destroyed so there was no evidence. A perfect crime really. “Too perfect, if you ask me.” said Dachson, looking at Sheeplock. The two were certainly on the same page. Sheeplock added “You are quite right Dachson. What we have is a claim that we cannot falsify as the method of the crime left no mark and the tools are gone. If we cannot falsify this claim, then the claim is invalid. If you cannot provide better information, we will have to throw out your claim and disqualify you from the competition for such behavior.”
The idea of falsification was brought forth by Karl Popper in 1959. He was a philosopher of science who put forth the idea that the goal of science isn’t to prove a claim right, but to prove it wrong. The classical view of science at the time was to prove a hypothesis right so he was inverting the reasoning. Modern science, then, does try to prove claims wrong while pseudoscience, on the other hand, usually tries to prove them right. The idea of falsifiability is that any claim should be falsifiable, even if we haven’t done it yet. This means that if you hear a claim, any claim, you should be able to think of way to prove it false. So, if I say “Any cellphone will explode if a soft drink cola is poured on it” you should be able to easily state “Fine, then we’ll get a cellphone and some soda, pour it on and see what happens.” Since you could envision a test, this makes my statement falsifiable. If you do the experiment and the phone doesn’t explode, then my statement was false. (Please don’t actually do this, the phone won’t explode but I’m pretty sure it’ll never work again.)
Now, if I say “I have a phone that is so powerful it can play any video game ever created, even The Smashening, but it exists outside of time and space” you may find yourself having trouble falsifying it. That’s because you can’t. If something exists outside of time and space, we have no way to interact with it so there is no observation you can make or test you can perform. This makes the claim non-falsifiable. There are a few exceptions to stay aware of. One is, if you and I are talking to each other in person and I say “I am conscious” you can probably agree with me and see it as a valid statement even though it’s not easy to falsify. Fortunately, these are rare occurrences and don’t let people point these out as a reason why falsifiability is useless, since they are just exceptions.
We are not taught to think this way, but learning to do so can make a huge difference in our lives. Suppose we have a friend named Jack who we say is very selfish because we never see him put any change in the “leave a penny” dish at the stores even when his pockets are totally jingling. Most of us would probably just accept this and talk about Jack being so selfish whenever he isn’t around. We have a new tool in our critical thinking toolkit, though, so how can we falsify “Jack is a selfish person”. We could ask Jack if he donates to charity, we could watch and see if he holds the door for anyone, see if he ever does work for free, or gives his time to help the less fortunate. Since we can think of all these tests, the statement “Jack is a selfish person” is certainly falsifiable. This doesn’t mean Jack isn’t selfish, but it does tell us that we may not want to accept the statement at face value. One observed non-selfish act would prove the statement wrong. By thinking this way, we can consider the claim questionable and maybe not talk about him behind his back. We may also find this came from Sally mis-hearing “Jack is a shellfish guy” because his favorite food is clams.
It’s a good idea to learn to question many of the fad health claims. For instance, perhaps you are having trouble concentrating and decide to try the new Bleatfast craze sweeping the nation in which you eat breakfast while letting sheep bleat at you to boost your cognitive power. Their literature does say “Used by millions. Ted from AK calls it ‘Awesome’, Suzi from PA rated it ‘Life changing’. Did we say millions? How could millions be wrong?”. Quite the pitch. Normally we are bombarded with cases showing how well this works, but how could we falsify it? We could try it – fortunately this is one that poses little personal risk to us. We could interview those who have tried it. We could ask for literature on their own tests and results. We could ask what the mechanism is that allows sheep’s bleats to improve cognitive performance. Maybe do our own double-blind experiments. There are a lot of ways for us to falsify this. Perhaps we shouldn’t put this fad at the top of the list until we know more. Plus, I do this most mornings myself (if the windows are open) with no profoundly life changing effects.
While falsifiability is generally considered a principle of science, I didn’t want to get bogged down in a full review of the scientific method here. I think it has it’s uses in everyday life for all of us. I’ve heard that it is of use when taking tests if you can’t figure out the right answer, are there answers you can falsify – don’t find the correct answer, find the ones that are wrong. The real point I want to make is to use this method to not accept claims at face value just because they have a few positive proofs. Learn to ask questions, see if you can make a claim false via any normal test or observation. Thinking like this doesn’t come easy, but is oh so valuable. Maybe we should start teaching this again. I’m gonna go grab a few cases of wine as it seems Two Ewes Vintners took the top place for the 3rd year running – they make a darn good Chardonnay.