Duncan Pritchard, who holds a chair in epistemology at the University of Edinburgh, published What is This Thing Called Knowledge? some years ago. He has three textbooks, two published books on epistemology, and approximately fifty journal articles to his name. Let me make this clear: Pritchard is no first-year undergrad at a community college. And yet, his What is This Thing Called Knowledge? has a short section on Popper’s response to the problem of induction that is … shameful. Just shameful.
“If Popper is right on this score [on the problem of induction being unsolvable], then it follows that we needn’t be quite as troubled by the problem of induction as we might have thought we should be, since it is not as if as much of our knowledge of the world–gained through science–is dependent upon induction as we originally supposed. But does Popper’s rather radical solution to the problem work?
I wait with bated breath to hear Pritchard’s criticism.
There are a number of problems with Popper’s proposal; we shall here consider the two main ones. The first problem arises because if we understand our scientific knowledge in the way that Popper suggests, it’s not clear that we have all that much scientific knowledge. … It seems, then, that we can never know the unfalsified generalisations that scientists make; we can only know that falsity of those generalisations that have been shown to be false. It seems, then, that we lose a lot of our knowledge on the Popperian view after all. (bolding mine, p. 105-6)
This is a problem only if knowledge is taken to be justified true belief, but this problem exists only when said theory of knowledge encounters the problem of induction: inductive inferences do not in any way justify scientific theories. How is this then a problem for critical rationalism when critical rationalism does not take knowledge as justified true belief?
“The second problem with Popper’s proposal arises because it is not obvious that scientists are able to deduce the falsity of one of their bold generalisations simply by observing what seems to be a decisive counter-example to the generalisation. … Suppose that for many centuries people have observed that emus were flightless, and so came to believe that all emus are flightless. Now suppose that one day a scientist comes into the room and claims that she’s just seen a flying emu. How would you respond? (bolding mine)
“… you certainly wouldn’t abandon your belief … just on the basis of this one instance of testimony. After all, given the long history of observations of flightless emus, other explanations of what this scientist seems to have observed seem far more preferable. At the uncharitable end of the spectrum, one might suspect that the scientist was simply wrong in her observation, or perhaps even deceitful. Even if one trusts the scientist … one could note that there are birds in the area which can look a lot like emus in certain conditions. More radically, one might simply assert that whatever this creature was that was flying, it couldn’t have been an emu, since it is characteristic of emus that they don’t fly, and so it must have been a different creature entirely … one that is just like an emu in every respect except that it flies.
Yes, Pritchard makes the elementary mistake of confusing the falsifiability of theories–the logical possibility of uncovering an existential statement that contradicts a strictly universal statement–with the falsification of theories. Does anyone think that scientists would uncritically adopt existential statements that corroborate scientific theories? Of course not! That is just stupid. Scientists would just adopt every single statement they were told! Why, then, should a criticism of Popper assume that scientists would uncritically adopt existential statements that refute scientific theories?
I cannot believe I am saying this, I hope that it is obvious that scientists do in fact spend a great deal of their time intersubjectively criticizing the purported results of tests, for the results of tests may in fact be erroneous. Good grief.
Since this pseduo-criticism keeps cropping up in popular expositions of critical rationalism, I’ve begun to worry about the current state of scholarship. Has Pritchard ever heard of a primary source? Has Pritchard ever read even a snippet of the relevant passages from The Logic of Scientific Discovery? And where was the reviewer during this whole process? Were they as inept as Pritchard?
“The point about all of this is that one isn’t obligated to take any observation at face value. Moreover, there seems nothing essentially irrational about objecting to the observation in the sorts of ways just outlined provided that the generalisation called into question by the observation is sufficiently well confirmed by other observations.” (106).