Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Popperian Pathway

In a lecture before the London School of Economics, the University Channel Podcast presents Michael Baum, professor emeritus of surgery and visiting professor of medical humanities at University College London. He speaks about the logic of science and alternative medicine. In addition to the philosophy of science he has a passion for the visual arts and consequently he illustrates his lecture with some works of art, two of which I have included in this post.

Baum emphasizes in the lecture the weakness of medicine as far as it can claim to be based on evidence: it is mostly inductive. Which, he proceeds to show (or attempts so) is still better than the alternative medicine, which is not even that. Alternative medicine relies on anecdotal evidence. For example, if life expectancy for a certain type of cancer patient is limited, we must know the curve has an abnormal distribution. The incidental long living patient provides the anecdote. I'd say that is induction no less - evidence based medicine induces from larger figures.

Baum is a specialist on breast cancer and uses this field in an attempt to show how science as laid out by Karl Popper generates a slow advance towards knowledge. For example, when he started out (1965), it was held that the cancer needed to be treated with radical amputation. New evidence showed cancer would have spread by the time it was shown, hence the mastectomy was largely superfluous, or at least too late. Then the disease must be systemic. A 1985 meta analysis showed surgery and chemotherapy to be efficacious together. A steady decrease of mortality was reached when systemic therapy was combined with amputation.

Baum perceives a conceptual revolution. Everything suddenly looks totally different, after the meta-analysis (and he illustrates it with the Dali above). True science is being open to refutation and new conceptual approach. Evidence based medicine allows these revolutions and hence is the way to progress; one allows for proving to be wrong. So when originally you looked at the facts (look at the picture) and it seemed surgery was the way to go (you see nuns walking through a gate), new evidence allows you to see otherwise (discover the bust Voltaire) in the same facts.

It is a very ideal picture Baum paints and it seems to me it gives a little too much credit to Popper (though a lot of credit is due). Lakatos and Kuhn already showed how the Popperian method lacks the standards by which falsifying data, will do anything other than refute hypothesis. It does not indicate when the situation needs this 'conceptual revolution' and more so, doesn't help finding the new concept. If the shift needs to be made from the 'nuns' to the 'bust' a creative leap is needed and the Popperian pathway neither identifies the moment it is needed nor how it can be made.

More UChannel podcast on this blog:
Less Safe, Less Free (Losing the War on Terror),
The Greatest Threat to Zionism,
The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy
and Multiculturalism in the Netherlands.

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Rafe said...

Great post! Although it is not really a helpful criticism of Popper to say that Lakatos and Kuhn had already shown the limitations of falsification, because Popper never attempted to do more with that part of his theory than demonstrate the logical incoherence of positivism.

As to working out where and how to move on from falfified theories, Lakatos and Kuhn are less helpful than Popper and it is a shame that critics have never paid much attention to his suggestions, possibly because he pointed out that logic and the philosophy of science don't really have answers to that question and should not be asked to provide them.

People have to have lots of problems and be passionate about wanting to solve them (to fall in love with them, as Popper suggested). They need to know the history and context of the problems, how other people have tried to solve them and where they went wrong. They need to have ideas and they also need to be critical of ideas, both their own and others. Lakatos and Kuhn in contrast tend to promote acceptance rather than criticism of frameworks and deep assumptions (paradigms and hard cores).

They need to become aware of unconscious limits that are being placed on the field of search by philosophical and metaphysical assumptions (that is, paradigms and hard cores) - see his theory of metaphysical research programs which was probably the inspiration for Lakatos on programs.

Rafe said...

For metaphysical research programs

Hoping comments are not rejected if they have multiple links in them!

An interesting and rather new perpective from Ian Jarvie, Popper's "social turn".

The view from Peter Medawar, Nobel Prize winner in medicine and great friend of Popper.

The man called Anne said...

Dear Rafe,

First of all, thank you very much for your comments and for the links. I have taken up reading them carefully.

Second, I have to admit I was not aware of Popper's MPR's. I have studied Objective Knowledge, many many years ago, very closely, but apart from that, I was educated in the Logic of Science from secondary sources. In those sources it was taught, Lakatos and Kuhn had revealed Popper's theories as carrying a fundamental weakness in that they do not address the when and how of paradigm switch.

In other terms this could be called a conceptual revolution, which are the words Baum uses in the lecture i was commenting on. The way Baum presents it, after a couple of falsifications, the conceptual revolution 'happened', thus taking a apparently for granted. This is why I was reminded of what I was taught a near two decades ago.
Thanks for pointing out Popper has addressed the problem and I'll dig in to it as much as I can.

Thirdly, if you are interested in listening to more Popper related podcasts, I can recommend BBC's In Our Time that has delivered an issue on Popper not so long ago. It can be listened to on-line. I am not sure whether it can be downloaded.