Avoiding Karl Popper

popperThe philosopher Karl Popper has published on a wide variety of subjects but his most lasting contribution is his answer to the problem of induction by drawing attention to the asymmetry between verification and falsification. A theory can never be proven, but it can be falsified. Popper’s falsification criterion can also be used  to distinguish scientific theories from unscientific theories. His ideas on science and knowledge are captured  by his philosophical perspective called critical rationalism.

One does not necessarily have to be an avid reader of Popper to be a critical rationalist. As a matter of fact, some people are critical rationalists by temperament. They have an open mind, encourage critical thinking, and are suspicious of any claims that something is “certain” or “settled.” Unfortunately, one can also subscribe to critical rationalism as a philosophical perspective and be a self-righteous arrogant bastard at the same time, such as…..Karl Popper.

One of the great ironies in the history of thought is the disconnection between what people preach and what they practice.  In Fooled by Randomness, Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes how members of the Vienna Circle tried to avoid Popper, “not because of his divergent ideas, but because he was a social problem,” being “a terrible listener and bent on winning arguments at all costs,” according to people who knew him.

Even a casual acquaintance with his writings is sufficient to detect this trait. His self-righteous character is not only evident in his thinking about social philosophy and politics, it permeates his writings about epistemology and science as well, as can be seen in his strong obsession with his own place in the history of thought and his recognizable belligerent style.

Although Popper has become known as a fierce critic of authoritarian social thinking, utopian plans to reform society and an advocate of the “open society,” his writings on political matters display the spirit of a rabid Jacobin, throwing around words such as “catastrophe,” “nonsense,” “irresponsible,” “evil,” and “absurd” like there is no tomorrow. Despite  his “anti-authoritarian” perspective on politics, Popper routinely descends into handing down all kinds of dictates about how to organize society.

Some people have drawn attention to the tensions between Popper’s epistemology and interventionist views. The social philosopher Anthony de Jasay carefully reviewed Popper’s problematic arguments for “piecemeal social engineering” and democracy in his insightful essay “The Twistable is not Testable: Reflexions on the Political Thought of Karl Popper.” It may not come a surprise that Popper’s writings have been employed to advocate the most grandiose plans to remake the world.

Taleb observes that “we like to emit logical and rational ideas but we do not necessarily enjoy this execution.” Reading Popper can be a rewarding experience, but it is not necessarily a pleasurable experience…..