What is science?

Ulf Persson is a professor of mathematics who has written a book about Karl Popper – one of the 20th century’s most influential scientific theorists.

At the turn of the millennium, Ulf Persson was Chairman of the Swedish Mathematical Society and became involved in a debate with mathematics didacticians on whether or not didactics is a science. He explains how, at the same time, he came into contact with Karl Popper and read most of Popper’s writings over the course of the years. He has always had an interest in philosophy, and had dreamed about being a writer since childhood.
“As a mathematician, you can never turn to a broader readership and say something deeper. Philosophy is different, which of course also played a significant part in my motivation.”

In his book Karl Popper – falsifieringens profet (‘Karl Popper – the Prophet of Falsification’), Ulf Persson tests Popper’s theory in a number of branches of science, including economics, pedagogics and evolutionary biology. He describes Popper’s thoughts as follows:

Today, as much as possible should have a scientific basis. But what does science actually mean? Can philosophy and literature be sciences? And what about so-called social sciences such as economics and pedagogics? Is there a risk that the concept of science could become superficial? That the concept contains an element of prestige?

These question aroused the interest of the young Karl Popper as early as the 1920s, whose thoughts revolved primarily around Marx and Freud. And the criterion he formulated, in terms of falsification, has become almost notorious. It is certainly true that nothing in science can be proved, according to Popper, but instead refuted. Science makes advances by excluding possibilities. Democracy and science are intimately linked, and the freedom to criticise is fundamental, but freedom of speech does not mean – as post-modernists conclude – that all perceptions are of equal value. Value is determined not through voting or other social constructs, but through objective tests, and ideology consists of approaching the only truth.

Within many activities this is seen as both dogmatic and naive, but nothing can be less dogmatic than science, insists Popper, and those who reject this cannot make claims of scientificity, any more than those who dogmatically maintain their own uncriticisable truth. More relevant to scientific circles is the fact that Popper also turns to Francis Bacon’s scientific philosophy, which is predominant today and forms the basis for research policy. This is a view which maintains that truth is evident and can be produced industrially, and aims to control nature and greater material prosperity. The truth is hard to find and cannot be systematically extracted, instead being the result of a highly creative activity based on bold hypotheses that survive constant attempts at falsification.

Popper differs from Kuhn and his paradigms by emphasising the content of science and not its form. Something for modern universities to bear in mind, perhaps.
1-2014-ulf-perssonUlf Persson