“… in science there is no ‘knowledge’, in the sense in which Plato and Aristotle understood the word, in the sense which implies finality; in science, we never have sufficient reason for the belief that we have attained the truth. … This view means, furthermore, that we have no proofs in science (excepting, of course, pure mathematics and logic). In the empirical sciences, which alone can furnish us with information about the world we live in, proofs do not occur, if we mean by ‘proof’ an argument which establishes once and for ever the truth of a theory.”
-Sir Karl Popper, The Problem of Induction, 1953
There are plenty of things that cannot be proved wrong. For instance, did you know I have an invisible pet dragon who occasionally visits Santa Claus in the North Pole, and was hatched from an egg that was laid inside a teapot that orbits the sun between Earth and Mars?
Don’t believe me? Prove my dragon doesn’t exist.
It’s perfectly intuitive, to most people, why my claim is nonsense, but what tools in the background do we use to discern this? How are we so sure?
After all, isn’t appeal to incredulity a logical fallacy? Just because something is hard to believe doesn’t make it false.
It’s an interesting exercise to evaluate absurd claims, such as the idea that the solar system is geocentric, or that biblical creationism explains the earth’s diversity of life.
The nauseating and terrifying problem in real life is that most of the claims we evaluate on a daily basis are not as ridiculous as these examples, even though they may be just as incorrect.
Most reasonable people take well-explained science at face value, but when we’re tasked with explaining how we really know the earth orbits the sun (and not the other way around, as Aristotle guessed), it’s often difficult for us to explain; in fact, I’d guess most people are not qualified to give a decent explanation, aside from “science says so”.
Though the “science says so” argument isn’t a bad threshold for how one accepts facts, it’s unsatisfying to people who are curious about how the world works. The prerequisite of such deeper knowledge means throwing out bad ideas and focusing attention on better ones — it is the best optimization humans have for improving their knowledge base, and this method is precisely what science is good at.
Let’s walk-through this thought experiment. What are the characteristics of my dragon claim that make it absurd?
If you’re of the opinion that dragons do not exist, then the first red flag is that I’ve posited the existence of a creature that doesn’t exist; in other words, I’ve violated a natural rule. But dragons could exist…maybe the problem is that science just hasn’t seen them, yet. Maybe there are millions of them. There’s strike one in our attempt to attach the absurd label to the dragon claim.
As for the celestial teapot in which the dragon was hatched: have you been to outer space? Have you physically observed the teapot isn’t there? Maybe if you went to outer space and looked in the teapot, you’d see dragon shell pieces, which would prove that a dragon was hatched in the teapot. Again, we’ve failed to disprove the claim.
What about my dragon’s lack of visibility? Granted, we don’t see many creatures that have the ability to be invisible (aside from bacteria and other micro-organisms), but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Wouldn’t it stand to reason that a creature with the capacity to change its own visibility might not have yet been observed by scientists? In fact, that would be an obvious implication.
All the objections we raise to assert the claim’s absurdity can be easily countered, and if we’re being honest, these counter-arguments are reasonable responses. Yet that doesn’t make the claim any less absurd. It’s quite the dilemma: If we can’t even disprove an invisible pet dragon who sometimes visits Santa Clause, what chance do we have of proving or disproving anything?
The short answer is: we can’t disprove things like this. Unfalsifiable claims, by definition, prevent disproof. In this regard, they are the worst sort of trickery; what makes it worse is when we see people couple such claims with exploitation of natural and existential fear, such as how religion exploits the fear of death; it really is the worst sort of mongering. It’s also the oldest, and most common trick charlatans have used to accumulate wealth and power.
Yet, even though we have a real blindspot in our capacity to disprove obviously false claims, humans now have more collective knowledge than ever, and our collective body of knowledge is growing faster than it ever has, in the history of humanity.
Is this a dichotomy? A paradox? Some violation of logic?
Of course not. Even though we can sit around worrying about all the things that we don’t know, or couldn’t possibly know, and how that must mean we have no capacity to really understand anything, such as what the Hovind clan would have us believe, we’ve still managed to make more progress than most members of humanity would have ever imagined.
The facilitator of this progress is simply the recognition that knowledge *should* be tentative, that we’re likely to collect evidence that will alter our current understanding, and that a claim must meet some burden of proof in order to justify its validity. In other words, there should be a good reason to believe something, before we even consider its truth value. This bias we have towards rock-solid truth, and the inclination to frame things in such rigid terms, is, in fact, our main impediment as a species.
The fundamental problem with my dragon claim is that it is unfalsifiable. There is no path to disprove it. And even if the claim is disproved in its current form, the millions of iterations it could undergo to further exempt it from falsification provides proof that it’s not a useful claim, and the only value it gives is as a case study for how to disregard claims.
Anyone can make up anything, and if our standard for acceptance was simply the inability to disprove it, we’d believe a lot of nonsensical, completely contradictory things.
For instance: many years ago, a population of invisible gnomes who live in my bedroom killed every single living invisible dragon, and now invisible dragons are extinct.
Wait a minute? What about my pet invisible dragon that was hatched from an egg inside Russell’s teapot? The invisible gnome story contradicts my invisible dragon claim, yet neither claim could be disproved.
What should we believe then? What merits belief? How do we construct our realities such that we maximize our chances for believing things that are correct, while minimizing the chance we’ll believe something that is incorrect?
If progress we’ve made over the past 400 years is any indication, then the best strategy we have for maximizing our correctness is by putting the burden of proof on a claim, with the expectation that there exists some conceivable strategy to disprove it. If we concoct a reasonable test to disprove the claim, then conduct the test and get results that prohibit us from disproving it, then we’ve added weight to the claim.
A simple example of this is the fact that if we found a modern mammal skeleton in Cambrian strata, that would disprove many underlying tenets of evolution. Since we fail to find such a skeleton, weight gets added to evolutionary theory. Does the absence of mammal skeletons prove evolutionary theory? No. But it adds weight, because it is a conceivable outcome.
Humans are not naturally inclined to rigidly test ideas. There were nearly 2000 years between the birth of formalized logic and the advent of the scientific method. It’s not particularly intuitive to approach the world this way, which is why humans have (and still do) come up with so many bad ideas. The scientific method is probably the closest thing we have to a silver bullet, and its underlying beauty is in its recognition that it could never be perfect or provide a single, ultimate answer to everything.