An essay on the theory of continental drift

London Chapman and Hall,

An essay on the theory of continental drift

This was the conclusion reached a number of decades ago by Karl Popper, one of the most influential philosophers of science. He thought long and hard about it and proposed a simple criterion: For a notion to be considered scientific it would have to be shown that, at the least in principle, it could be demonstrated to be false, if it were, in fact false.

Here is how in Conjectures and Refutations he differentiated among Einstein on one side, and Freud, Adler and Marx on the other: Even if our measuring instruments at the time did not allow us to pronounce on the results of the tests with complete assurance, there was clearly a possibility of refuting the theory.

The Marxist theory of history, in spite of the serious efforts of some of its founders and followers, ultimately adopted [a] soothsaying practice. In some of its earlier formulations … their predictions were testable, and in fact falsified. Yet instead of accepting the refutations the followers of Marx re-interpreted both the theory and the evidence in order to make them agree.

The two psycho-analytic theories were in a different class. They were simply non-testable, irrefutable. There was no conceivable human behaviour which could contradict them … I personally do not doubt that much of what they say is of considerable importance, and may well play its part one day in a psychological science which is testable.

And if the theory had been tested in as was originally plannedit would have been apparently falsified. Life, and science, are complicated. This is all good and well, but why should something written near the beginning of last century by a philosopher — however prominent — be of interest today?

Well, you might have heard of string theory.

An essay on the theory of continental drift

In fact, string theory is better described as a general framework — the most mathematically sophisticated one available at the moment — to resolve a fundamental problem in modern physics: Physicists agree that this means that either theory, or both, are therefore wrong or incomplete.

String theory is one attempt at reconciling the two by subsuming both into a broader theoretical framework. There is only one problem: Surprisingly, the ongoing, increasingly public and acerbic diatribe often centres on the ideas of one Karl Popper.

What, exactly, is going on? The organiser, Richard Dawid, of the University of Stockholm, is a philosopher of science with a strong background in theoretical physics.

He is also a proponent of a highly speculative, if innovative, type of epistemology that supports the efforts of string theorists and aims at shielding them from the accusation of engaging in flights of mathematical fancy decoupled from any real science.

My role there was to make sure that participants — an eclectic mix of scientists and philosophers, with a Nobel winner thrown in the mix — were clear on something I teach in my introductory course in philosophy of science: In the months preceding the workshop, a number of high profile players in the field had been using all sorts of means — from manifesto-type articles in the prestigious Nature magazine to Twitter — to pursue a no-holds-barred public relations campaign to wrestle, or retain, control of the soul of contemporary fundamental physics.

Let me give you a taste of the exchange, to set the mood: This surprisingly blunt — and very public — talk from prestigious academics is what happens when scientists help themselves to, or conversely categorically reject, philosophical notions that they plainly have not given sufficient thought to.

Loud debates on social media and in the popular science outlets define how much of the public perceives physics This is a rather novel, and by no means universal, attitude among physicists.

Thomas Carlyle's "Signs of the Times"

Compare the above contemptuousness with what Einstein himself wrote to his friend Robert Thorton in on the same subject: A knowledge of the historic and philosophical background gives that kind of independence from prejudices of his generation from which most scientists are suffering.

This independence created by philosophical insight is — in my opinion — the mark of distinction between a mere artisan or specialist and a real seeker after truth. The philosophical noise they make is likely not representative of what physicists in general think and say, but it matters all the same precisely because they are so prominent; those loud debates on social media and in the popular science outlets define how much of the public perceives physics, and even how many physicists perceive the big issues of their field.

If one were to turn that philosophy into a bumper sticker slogan it would read something like: Popper himself changed his mind throughout his career about a number of issues related to falsification and demarcation, as any thoughtful thinker would do when exposed to criticisms and counterexamples from his colleagues.

Sure enough, modern psychologists have a name for this tendency, common to laypeople as well as scientists: Nonetheless, later on Popper conceded that verification — especially of very daring and novel predictions — is part of a sound scientific approach.

An essay on the theory of continental drift

After all, the reason Einstein became a scientific celebrity overnight after the total eclipse is precisely because astronomers had verified the predictions of his theory all over the planet and found them in satisfactory agreement with the empirical data.

But it has withstood a very good number of high stakes challenges over the intervening century, and its most recent confirmation came just a few months ago, with the first detection of gravitational waves. Scientific hypotheses need to be tested repeatedly and under a variety of conditions before we can be reasonably confident of the results Popper also changed his mind about the potential, at the least, for a viable Marxist theory of history and about the status of the Darwinian theory of evolution, concerning which he was initially skeptical, thinking — erroneously — that the idea was based on a tautology.

He conceded that even the best scientific theories are often somewhat shielded from falsification because of their connection to ancillary hypotheses and background assumptions. That is why scientific hypotheses need to be tested repeatedly and under a variety of conditions before we can be reasonably confident of the results.I remain the official Senior Maverick for Wired, a magazine I helped co-found 25 years ago.

I do one article for Wired per year. My most recent published writings are listed here, in chronological order. My newest book, The Inevitable, a New York Times bestseller, is now available in paperback.

The. The Evolutionary Theory of Aging. Because aging increases an organism's vulnerability and ultimately leads to its death, as detailed before, it is apparently in contradiction with Darwin's evolutionary urbanagricultureinitiative.com all, how could evolution favor a process that, as happens in most animals, gradually increases mortality and decreases reproductive capacity?

The theory of plate tectonics offers a comprehensive explanation for several geological phenomena — continental drift, mountain building and volcanism, and, of course, earthquake. Evolution is change in the heritable characteristics of biological populations over successive generations.

These characteristics are the expressions of genes that are passed on from parent to offspring during urbanagricultureinitiative.coment characteristics tend to exist within any given population as a result of mutation, genetic recombination and other sources of genetic variation.

The general theory of relativity is sound science; ‘theories’ of psychoanalysis, as well as Marxist accounts of the unfolding of historical events, are pseudoscience. Published: Mon, 5 Dec Population growth can be defined as an increase or decrease in the population size of living species including human beings.

Human populations are also subject to natural process of birth and death.

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