Avital Pilpel

Popper and pundits, or why a little knowledge is a dangerous thing

The controversy concerning the decision of the Israeli Council for Higher Education (CHE) to temporarily shut down the political science department at Ben Gurion University (BGU), based in part on the Sept. 2011 recommendations of an external committee it appointed to investigate the department, is making waves in the political pundits’ world. In particular, Karl Popper is mentioned as proof that the decision is justified. Ben-Dror Yemini notes in his blog on NRG’s web site (“Silencing Academia?”, 5/10/12) that most researchers in the department belong to the critical theory school, whose findings cannot be falsified by experiment, and “according to the Popperian method, what cannot be falsified is not scientific”. Similarly, Dror Eydar, in an article in Yisrael Hayom (“50 Shades of Black”, 5/10/12), also mentions Popper’s falsification method as the gold standard which is at the basis of the “positivist method” of research, which he contrasts with the “descriptive method” of the critical theory school that is practiced in the said department.

Both Eydar and Yemini, I am afraid, misrepresent reality. First, positivism is (or at least was) a major philosophical movement, not at all synonymous with simply following Popper’s falsification criterion. An idea of the nature of the disagreement between them – itself an issue in philosophy – can be had by noting that for positivists, unobservable claims (e.g., “a wholly transcendental God exists”) are meaningless, while for Popper they are meaningful, and sometimes true, but not in the domain of science, being unfalsifiable. Second, Popper’s criterion, although made famous by him, goes back at least to the American philosopher C. S. Peirce who discussed it in the 1860s (under a different name), and has precursors in antiquity. Third, and most important, the vast majority of philosophers of science have given up on the attempt to define the demarcation criteria between science and non-science. Such criteria “failed to deliver the goods”, as the philosopher Larry Laudan notes. For example, many theories fail, at least at an early stage of their evolution, to satisfy Popper’s falsification criterion or any other suggested demarcation criterion, yet are quite rightly considered scientific. This is true even in physics; it is even more so in the social sciences, such as history or political science. Not only falsifiable, in particular quantitative, research is “real” research. Inasmuch as the general question whether critical theory is a legitimate research method in political science is meaningful at all (as opposed to whether the particular research done at BGU using it is of high quality) depends on many factors, but Popper’s criterion isn’t one of them.

This philosophical misconception misleads, I believe, both Yemini and Eydar, when it comes to understanding the committee’s report. First of all, the report, easily found online, did not claim the research done in the department is pseudoscientific due to its lack of “positivist methodology” or its “unfalsifiability”. The committee knew better than to condemn an entire research method in an important field based on whether it passes or fails some philosophical test. It claimed, rather, that the department lacks courses in quantitative and qualitative research methodology, and criticized the department for overemphasizing political activism to the detriment of its core curriculum and the quality of its research, among other things. Serious criticisms, to be sure, but a far cry from a Popperian condemnation of the department’s, or critical theory’s, research as pseudoscientific or meaningless tout court, which what Eydar and Yemini seem to believe the committee said.

It is not expected of Eydar or Yemini to be experts in philosophy of science. They are employed to give the reader a layman’s view of various current issues. Their problem is that here, they no longer acted as laymen who tell us what the committee said, or what they think about it. They acted as if they were experts in philosophy of science, trotting out Popper and positivism (which the committee’s report, unsurprisingly, didn’t mention) to interpret the committee’s report and explain to the layman reader what it “really said”, but ending up misinterpreting it.

Pliny tells us about a cobbler who told Apelles the painter, who used to exhibit his pictures outside his shop to have the passers-by comment on them, that he made a mistake in painting a shoe. Apelles corrected the mistake that night, and the next day the cobbler told him of a mistake in the painting of the leg. “Let the cobbler not go further than the shoe”, said Apelles. What annoyed him was, I suggest, not that a non-painter commented on his painting – this is precisely why he exhibited the paintings outside for! – but that he suspected the cobbler was now craving recognition an expert in anatomy, just like he was an expert about shoes. Apelles was right: we can, and should, look at experts’ work (in this case, the committee’s report) as laymen and consider its pros and cons. We should not, however, presume to be experts in fields where we are not when we come to interpret it to others. The line between when one writes as an expert and when one writes as a layman is, of course, just as blurry as the line between science and non-science. But it nevertheless exists, and those who write for the public should be aware of it.

About the Author
Dr Avital Pilpel is a lecturer of Philosophy at the University of Haifa and the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya (IDC). As a hobby, he researches the history of Chess in Israel and the Yishuv