What Does Falsifiability Mean in the Context of Science?

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In summary: The theory can be proven wrong, but I don't think it will be because we will get better at discerning colours.In summary, a theory is falsifiable if it can be logically contradicted by an empirical test using existing technologies.
  • #1
Chenkel
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TL;DR Summary
I am wondering about the language of calling a theory falsifiable, and what it entails from a purely logical point of view.
Hello everyone,

I was wondering about falsifiability, and I have an intuitive idea of its meaning based on seeing it used throughout the body of the science, but I was wondering in a more specific logically rigorous context what that word really means.

I read on the Wikipedia page for falsifiability the following: "A theory or hypothesis is falsifiable (or refutable) if it can be logically contradicted by an empirical test using existing technologies. Popper insisted that, as a logical criterion, falsifiability is distinct from the related concept "capacity to be proven wrong" discussed in Lakatos' falsificationism.[C][D] Even being a logical criterion, its purpose is to make the theory predictive and testable, and thus useful in practice."

So basically I can think of data that challenges a scientific theory as data that "refutes" the theory, or scientific theory.

A scientific theory is falsifiable if an experiment can produce data that will falsify the theory.

If a theory is falsifiable that means it can be proven wrong, if the universe is around long enough, are we correct or incorrect to say "if something can happen it will happen."?

I am not sure how a scientist will say if something can happen it will potentially never happen, how do I understand the language used and what it means based on resolving this point of confusion?

Hopefully I made myself clear enough, if you have any questions, please feel free to ask.

Looking forward to your insights, thank you.
 
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  • #2
It sounds like you do in fact understand the concept of falsifiability. I am not sure what question remains.
 
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  • #3
Dale said:
It sounds like you understand falsifiability. I am not sure what point remains.
I am highly aware that the following analysis might be wrong:

If a theory can be proven wrong, won't it eventually be proven wrong?

If a theory cannot be wrong, then it is correct, and if there is always a possibility of being proven wrong, then given enough time in the universe, won't every falsifiable theory be shown to not work universally?
 
  • #4
Chenkel said:
If a theory can be proven wrong, won't it eventually be proven wrong?
I don’t think so. If a theory is wrong then it should eventually be proven wrong.
 
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  • #5
Dale said:
I don’t think so. If a theory is wrong then it should eventually be proven wrong.
I agree that a theory that is wrong will eventually be proven wrong, that is if the theory is falsifiable.

On the other hand, if we don't know if the theory is correct or wrong, then if there is even a one percent chance of being proven wrong, then how can it be correct given a number of trials increasing throughout time?
 
  • #6
I don’t understand. It seems like you understand the concept of falsifiability but are perhaps making a question about language. I am not sure what your language question is.
 
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  • #7
Chenkel said:
On the other hand, if we don't know if the theory is correct or wrong, then if there is even a one percent chance of being proven wrong, then how can it be correct given a number of trials increasing throughout time?
How do you know that the theory has a 1%(or any percentage) chance of being wrong?
 
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  • #8
Examine an example.
The hypothesis is: the thing you're holding is yellow
Can it be falsified? Yes. By looking at the thing in your hand you can determine whether it is indeed yellow or not.
What is the probability of it being wrong? The number of colours you can discern minus one, over the number of these same colours.
If it is indeed yellow, no amount of waiting* will make it stop being yellow.

It's like, a probability of something occurring is separate from the fact of something being one way or another.
If a theory does in fact describe the world correctly, no amount of waiting will make it not correct in the domain it was tested in.

But wait, you say, what was that last bit about the domain of testing? Well, since we can't ever measure anything perfectly, all theories that pass the falsifiability test must be treated as at best provisionally correct.
If you get better at discerning colours, you may in time find out that is not actually yellow yellow, but more like saffron yellow (or whatever yellow-adjacent shade). But you won't ever discover it to be green.

With improved measurements, Newtonian gravity was shown to not be the correct description of reality. In all likelihood, GR will similarly eventually fail. But they will remain correct theories in the measurement domains they were tested in.

*for the sake of the argument let's ignore things like colours fading with time, somebody coming along and repainting the thing, the sun exploding etc. Let's treat its yellowness as a law of nature.
 
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  • #9
Dale said:
I don’t understand. It seems like you understand the concept of falsifiability but are perhaps making a question about language. I am not sure what your language question is.
I am proposing the following idea which may or may not be correct:

If a theory is truly falsifiable, then it will be falsified at some point in time in the future given the correct parameters of the experiment (time, location, measurement devices, etc...)

If a theory is falsifiable, then by definition, it can't be correct according to all possible parameterizations of the experiment, i.e, times, locations, measurement devices, etc...

So a scientific theory can only be contextually correct, but it cannot be universally correct.

Is that analysis correct?

If so, is the following also correct?

If we ever do find a theory that is universally correct, then that means it won't be falsifiable.

Let me know what you think, thank you.
 
  • #10
Chenkel said:
If a theory is falsifiable that means it can be proven wrong, if the universe is around long enough, are we correct or incorrect to say "if something can happen it will happen."?
Could you rearrange that sentence in a manner that makes some sort of sense ?

Maybe reread the Wikipedia article.
 
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  • #11
Chenkel said:
If a theory is falsifiable, then by definition, it can't be correct according to all possible parameterizations of the experiment, i.e, times, locations, measurement devices, etc...
No. Falsifiable means that the theory makes predictions that can be tested.
 
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  • #12
Chenkel said:
On the other hand, if we don't know if the theory is correct or wrong, then if there is even a one percent chance of being proven wrong, then how can it be correct given a number of trials increasing throughout time?
That's how empirical science works. The opposite of "falsified" is not "proven correct", it is "not falsified so far, with some estimate of the probability of it ever being falsified".

I can test Newtonian gravity by dropping a brick while standing on the surface of the earth: if it hits my toes one of Newton's predictions is confirmed, if it floats away like a butterfly Newtonian gravity is falsified. No matter how many times I perform this experiment and bruise my toes I cannot prove that something different won't happen next time.

But it would be perverse to the point of crackpottery to seriously argue that Newtonian gravity therefore lacks adequate experimental confirmation. It hasn't been falsified yet, and the probability that it ever will be is for all practical purposes zero.
 
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  • #13
Chenkel said:
If a theory can be proven wrong, won't it eventually be proven wrong?
You seem to skip a key word in your first post "empirical"

Empirical means that an example is found that does not follow the theory. It does not mean that someone sat down with logic and proved the theory wrong in the sense that we prove a postulate in geometry.

Causality is an important principle in physics. Cause comes before effect. The hole in the target appears because the bullet passed through it. If anyone finds a case where the hole comes first, then the bullet appears, that would falsify causality. What purpose is served by trying to guess the chances of that counter example being found?
 
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  • #14
Chenkel said:
If a theory is truly falsifiable, then it will be falsified at some point
That doesn’t follow. How do you propose to justify this claim?
 
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  • #15
Chenkel said:
If a theory can be proven wrong, won't it eventually be proven wrong?
No, not "can be proven wrong"; the correct approach is "could be proven wrong".

A good theory makes predictions. Testable predications. Predictions that, if they didn't come to pass, would falsify the theory. (But they do come to pass, thus the theory is vindicated.)

I have a theory that this banana is yellow. It predicts yellowness. That is a prediction that could - conceivably - be falsified by a well-constructed test. If the banana turned out to be any colour other than yellow, then my theory would be falsified. That fact that I can test it (regardless of the test results) qualifies it as a theory.

The banana does turn out to be yellow. Thus my theory is strengthened.
Chenkel said:
If a theory cannot be wrong, then it is correct,
No. If a theory cannot be proven wrong, it might as well be magic.

I have an invisible, silent, massless, hovering dragon living in my garage. There is no test you can devise that could - even in principle - prove it's not there. It does not qualify as a theory.
 
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  • #16
DaveC426913 said:
I have an invisible, silent, massless, hovering dragon living in my garage. There is no test you can devise that could - even in principle - prove it's not there. It does not qualify as a theory.
While calculating the actual probability is beyond my skills, it seems that there would be a finite probability of spontaneous ignition of cigars. :wink:
 
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  • #17
Frabjous said:
While calculating the actual probability is beyond my skills, it seems that there would be a finite probability of spontaneous ignition of cigars. :wink:
I believe Sagan's Garage Dragon actually emitted "cold" fire.
 
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  • #18
DaveC426913 said:
I believe Sagan's Garage Dragon actually emitted "cold" fire.
That even better. I prefer spontaneous cooling beers to cigars anyway.
I had never read this bit of Sagan‘s writing. Thanks.
 
  • #19
Frabjous said:
No. Falsifiable means that the theory makes predictions that can be tested.
So a theory can be falsifiable and never be falsified if it is a flawless theory?
 
  • #20
Chenkel said:
So a theory can be falsifiable and never be falsified if it is a flawless theory?
Yes.
 
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  • #21
And a theory that is not falsifiable is "not even wrong"
(Someone should mention Pauli's declaration......)
 
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  • #22
Dale said:
Yes.
That was probably the problem I had in understanding.

The language seems a little odd to me, but it gets the idea of the scientific method across, and that's what matters.

Falsifiable sounded to me like "can be falsified" and not "could be falsified."

"Can be falsified" seems like a non zero probability of falsification.

"Could be falsified" sounds like a probability of falsification that may or may not be zero. (And is probably the correct approach based on my interpretation of the reply from @DaveC426913)

The Wikipedia article seems to maybe indicate something incorrect, or at the very least is somewhat unclear, and I feel it should be improved to make it more clear that the correct word is "could" and not "can."
 
  • #23
Chenkel said:
On the other hand, if we don't know if the theory is correct or wrong, then if there is even a one percent chance of being proven wrong, then how can it be correct given a number of trials increasing throughout time?
That's not how probability works here. A theory is either correct or it isn't. If a theory is believed to have 1% probability of being wrong and it is proven wrong, then it was never correct and we just didn't know. The other 99% odds are that it is correct and will never be proven wrong because it is correct. It's not like spinning a roulette wheel where if you spin it enough times you'll eventually get every number. It's like spinning it once and maybe never finding out what number it landed on.

...although never finding out what number it landed on is functionally equivalent to the theory being correct.
 
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  • #24
The terminology of "can be" and "could be" is tricky. It doesn't really lend itself to clarity.
There's got to be a better - and still succinct way - of phrasing it.

I've been playing with it but haven't had luck.

At good theory is falsifiable in that could be falsified ... in theory ... but hasn't been. 🤔

*
Wait. Is that an italicized emoji?
 
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  • #25
This thread is getting into philosophy Not very good philosophy.

The OPs point can be expressed as a syllogism.
Scientific theories must be falsifiable.
True statements cannot be falsified.
Therefore scientific statements are never true.

This can be better discussed in a philosophy forum, along with angels dancing on a pinhead.
 
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  • #27
The OP's question has been answered, and the thread is in danger of wandering off into Philosophy territory. Hence the thread is closed. Thanks to all who helped the OP.
 
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