Rejecting Politics as Science

Rejecting Politics as Science

Marxism, Popper claims, is analogous to the psychological theories of Adler and pseudo-sciences such as astrology.

Attempts to present political systems as scientific are increasingly regarded as old-fashioned: the “common sense” view suggests that politics is not scientific, cannot be reduced to a set of principles such that it can be applied across cultures and societies. Yet to an extent, this “common sense” view derives from the work of Karl Popper, from that early attempt by the latter to tackle claims of Marxism’s “scientific” basis. Popper’s harsher critics have claimed that it is only because his attention was turned to Marxism that he himself attracted further notice at all, but I would dispute this. I consider that Popper’s critique of logical positivism is a devastating one; he would have had a place in the philosophy of science even without the critique of contemporary political philosophies.

That critique emerges out of Popper’s rejection of verificationism and his espousal of falsificationism. Perhaps ironically, Popper was himself a teenage Marxist, attracted by the apparent explanatory power of the ideology. Yet, with a remarkable degree of insight, fuelled by tragic personal experience, he soon realised that this explanatory power was itself an illusion – a weakness of the ideology, rather than a strength, and it was this insight (derived ultimately from the much earlier work of Hume) that provided the driving force behind his own critique of verificationism, both within Marxism and beyond it. By the time he was 17, Popper said, he had realised that:

“I had accepted a dangerous creed uncritically, dogmatically… Once I had looked at it critically, the gaps and loopholes and inconsistencies in the Marxist theory became obvious…”

Marxism, Popper claims, is analogous to the psychological theories of Adler and pseudo-sciences such as astrology. His attack upon the ideology became two-pronged: Marxism principally consisted of unfalsifiable claims, and it was a historicism. It could not, therefore, be described as scientific.

“I found that those of my friends who were admirers of Marx, Freud, and Adler, were impressed by a number of points common to these theories, and especially by their apparent explanatory power. These theories appear to be able to explain practically everything that happened within the fields to which they referred… There was no conceivable human behavior which could contradict them.”

What do we mean by “scientific”, in this instance? Marx claimed that his system of political thought was predictive and, to an extent, this was the case. Yet Marxists did not follow the strict Popperian criterion of falsification: when predictions were not in fact borne out (for example, the failure of working class revolution to occur throughout European societies), the underlying theory was not rejected, but was salvaged by the use of ad hoc hypotheses which were deployed to shore the theory up – a classic symptom of a pseudo-science, according to Popper. Initially an attempt at scientific rigour, Marxism collapses back into the mire.

It’s obviously possible to take issue with this on a number of counts: Wollheim, Cornforth and Hudelson all did so, among others, concentrating primarily on the accusations of historicism. One could also argue that Popper’s critique of Marxism applies principally to efforts to defend the ideology on scientific grounds. There are plenty of Marxists out there who take a different view of predictability and the capacity for explanation and analysis. Popper’s critique of verificationism is primarily to challenge claims of scientific status; it does not necessarily state that the theory should be thrown out entirely.

Other commentators (Verikukis, for instance) seek to challenge Popper on his home turf, claiming that he exhibits a double standard – a higher bar for Marxism, and a lower bar for his own attempts to devise a social science. Verikukis argues that the charges of unfalsifiability against Marxism have rarely been addressed, except in the wider arena of debunking the criterion of falsifiability itself (get rid of that, and the anti-Marxist critique collapses like a house of cards, requiring a complete refit elsewhere). This is the approach taken by Kuhn, Feyerabend and Lakatos – none of them Marxists – which we will consider on another occasion.

But it isn’t just Marx who comes under fire in Popper’s two-volume work, The Open Society and Its Enemies. Modern totalitarians are compared with ancient ones, namely, Plato: an early proponent, so Popper claims, of utopian social engineering. Given the nature of the society in The Republic, and its reliance upon a kind of early eugenics, I find it difficult to disagree with much of Popper’s analysis. The utopian engineer, according to Popper, formulates laws about social development and prescribes action accordingly: both Plato and Marx fall into this historicist guise.

Rejecting Politics as Science

This diverse trio drove the philosophy of science forwards with their responses to Popper’s theory of falsification.

The history of the philosophy of science throughout the 20th century is marked by sporadic reactions to Karl Popper, breaking out into florid and controversial display and effectively governing the course of the discipline as the century winds to its close.

Popper’s most significant critics during this period were the trio of Imre Lakatos, Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend – very different thinkers who, nonetheless, in their response to the theory of falsification, served to drive the philosophy of science forwards in leaps and bounds.

A central difficulty of falsification is behavioural rather than theoretical – falsificationism is an ideal. Scientists do not, in practice, jettison theories in response to a single falsificatory instance.

But what do they do instead? Generally they attempt to rescue their theory by dint of shoring it up with auxiliary hypotheses. Popper recognises this, referring to it as the “conventionalist stratagem”. The problem with that stratagem is that, eventually, it destroys the theory’s testability: astrology does this by refusing to countenance any negative instance; it renders itself unfalsifiable and therefore superficial.

Many positive examples are invoked in support of the theory: it is based on inductive instances. But negative examples – of which there are many – are discounted as falsificatory instances by astrology’s followers, and thus the theory chugs on, undeterred, yet increasingly weakened.

The precise manner in which scientists shore up their theories forms the basis of our trio’s work. There are a number of reasons for the conventionalist stratagem, most of them obvious. If you’ve invested a great deal of time and money in the investigation of a particular scientific theory, you will, naturally, be loth to throw the theoretical baby out with the bathwater – especially if your work is funded by a much wider organisation, such as the government or the military.

These practical considerations aside, scientists get attached to theories – and this, too, is where the sociology of science comes in. Commentators vary on how far they believe that scientists’ attachment to particular paradigms governs their thinking. In the pure realms of science, they’re probably not supposed to get attached at all (theories aren’t cats), but scientists are human, too, no matter how sniffy stringent rationalists might get about the issue.

Of the philosophers, as opposed to the sociologists, of science, it is probably Kuhn who has taken this view furthest: scientific paradigms, he claims , only really change when the old guard who promoted them either retire or expire. This is essentially a non-rational view of theory change, and has been open to some criticism as a result.

So how does Kuhn characterise the scientific method? Science, Kuhn claims, is formed of competing paradigms, one of which will usually be dominant in any given period. A scientific paradigm consists of a core theory surrounded by a number of auxiliary hypotheses. The core theory generally remains constant, whereas the auxiliary hypotheses are modified in the light of new or conflicting evidence.

Eventually, it may prove impossible to support the core theory by hypothesis modification any further, and at this point the core theory itself is abandoned or radically altered and a paradigm shift occurs. But this is an unusual event, going beyond what Kuhn refers to as “normal science”: those often lengthy periods in which scientists try to hang on to their theories in the face of competing evidence. Popper’s view is, Kuhn maintains, too idealistic.

Lakatos endeavours to reconcile the Popperian viewpoint with that of Kuhn: dispensing with the concept of the paradigm, he suggests that science moves forwards by means of the progressive research programme. Rather than invoking truth or falsity, we should consider whether a research programme – the hard core of hypotheses that constitute a theory – is progressing or degenerating. Does a theory predict new facts? Does it grow? If so, we may say that it is progressing. Lakatos’s views form a halfway house between Kuhn and Popper (he was a student of the latter), and his approach is often considered to be a more nuanced form of falsificationism.

A more anarchic approach – literally – is offered by Feyerabend. Auxiliary hypotheses are critical, he argues, but may be irrational. In fact, it’s impossible to develop any set of methodological rules by which scientists work: ad hoc, rule-breaking postulates are the order of the day. We seem to be heading at full speed towards epistemological relativism here, and indeed, according to Feyerabend, this is the case: not only does science fail to proceed according to fixed principles, but it doesn’t deserve its epistemic privileges, either. Far out! So if your preference is for Feyerabend over Popper, astrologers might be on to something, after all.

Lakatos, Kuhn, and Feyerabend

The Craving to be Right

The knowledge and certainty claims that are common to so many modern ideologies run contrary to Popper’s thinking.

Karl Popper died in 1994. As I remarked in the initial article in this series, his thought is, in many ways, too close for us to be able to evaluate with the full benefit of hindsight. But what would Popper make of the new(ish) millennium? It is hard not to believe that he would be cast into despair. Knowledge claims (and, more than that, certainty claims) are being made not only throughout political and religious ideologies, but also within alternative therapies, 2012 cults, revisionist approaches to history and a host of other fields.

Let’s remind ourselves of Popper’s actual take on this: he does not suggest that we reject these sorts of claims wholesale, but he does insist that we do not refer to them either in terms of epistemological certainty or in terms of science. They may, one day, achieve full falsifiable rigour, or they may not; they may be useful in other respects, or they may not, but we must be clear about their epistemological status.

So let us now take a step back and consider whether Popper has been successful in establishing falsificationism as the methodology du jour. Here, I think, we must acknowledge that he has not. Probabilistic induction remains the methodology of choice, not only among scientific practitioners, but also among those philosophers of science who take more moderate stances of other philosophers of science. Falsificationism also comes under fire from the scientific establishment itself, for instance, in the work of physicists Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont, who state:

“When a theory successfully withstands an attempt at falsification, a scientist will, quite naturally, consider the theory to be partially confirmed and will accord it a greater likelihood or a higher subjective probability… But Popper will have none of this: throughout his life he was a stubborn opponent of any idea of ‘confirmation’ of a theory, or even of its ‘probability’ … [yet] the history of science teaches us that scientific theories come to be accepted above all because of their successes.” (Sokal and Bricmont, 1997)

Both astrology and astronomy make incorrect predictions, Sokal and Bricmont argue, and falsificationism does not differentiate between them. But this claim is disputed by writers such as David Miller, who bring us full circle by pointing out that astronomy contains the parameters for its own falsifiability, whereas astrology does not.

What of Popper’s political thought – that body of work so closely intertwined in Popper’s writings with epistemology and scientific enquiry? His views on tolerance and anti-totalitarianism do now look like common sense to many. Political and social tolerance clearly leads to a paradox: summed up in the issue of where one person’s fist ends and another’s nose begins. Popper was a champion of liberalism throughout his life. He argues that tolerance means that we may eventually fail to tolerate intolerance. We can contain intolerant political philosophies, he says,

“… as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion.”


“We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal.”

These are opinions which are highly relevant to today’s relativistic, pluralistic societies, in which political and cultural boundary settings are still of necessity emergent, imprecise and fluid. Here, epistemological claims of certainty cannot be applied and Popper’s early and tragic encounters with the results of those claims – on both sides of the political spectrum – surely informed his commitment to as great a degree of mutual tolerance as possible. Nor is this incompatible with his commitment to falsifiability as a standard for scientific rigour: fallibilism underlies both the knowledge claims of science and those of politics.

“The old scientific ideal of episteme – of absolutely certain, demonstrable knowledge – has proved to be an idol. The demand for scientific objectivity makes it inevitable that every scientific statement must remain tentative for ever. It may be corroborated, but every corroboration is relative to other statements which, again, are tentative. Only in our subjective experiences of conviction, in our subjective faith can we be ‘absolutely certain’.”

The “craving to be right”, that hostility to tolerance which is found throughout all human inquiry, is in Popper’s eyes the basis for totalitarian thought; only once that is rejected can we get down to the business of testing truth claims, and only then can we be honest about what we do and do not know.

The Craving to be Right


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