On Sheep and Shepherds

The hostility of many people to the ideas of Karl Popper has The Git intrigued. Here’s The Git’s analysis of Popper ideas:

Problem Solving

Popper’s passion was problem solving. Not pseudo answers to hypothetical problems, real solutions to real problems. Popper notes the propensity of some academics (and others) to proclaiming: “The results of research indicate the problem to be much more difficult than originally thought. Here is how we failed to produce a satisfactory solution, demonstrating just how difficult the problem is.” Many social programs also fall into this category of non-solutions: educational reform has resulted in declining literacy and numeracy; crime has increased following the introduction of new crime control methods; economies decline as more government controls are introduced; all this despite the best intentions of those charged with their control.

Problem Solutions

Popper claims that most interesting problem solutions are not final. Following rigorous testing, they will eventually fail, providing the impetus to invent new and better solutions. The ideas for problem solutions come from the fertile imagination of individuals, that is they are guesses. Some guesses are good and are readily corroborated by observation and some are bad, being falsified by observation. Merely seeking corroboration will not generate new and better problem solutions. The best solutions are those we seek to falsify, but pass the tests we devise to falsify them.

Some people, like my Creationist friend Fran who helped build The House of Steel, believe that problem solutions come from God. He would pray to Him for the solutions to problems that inevitably arise in the building of a complex house and the answers would just as inevitably come to Fran, via his mind. Others believe that problem solutions are discovered, rather than invented. Sort of like Douglas Adams’ theory about humour. He claimed that there are humour bubbles floating about in the air, particularly in East Anglia, and that’s why tall people are much funnier than short people. When asked to explain Dudley Moore, he declared that proved his point entirely since he, Douglas Adams, was 20% funnier than Dud.

Another theory is that everything is predetermined, an inevitable consequence of believing that causality explains everything. Since the causes of future events have already taken place, all future events are immutable. Our attempts at problem solving are merely the result of the illusion of free will.

Problem solutions have a tendency to generate new and different problems. According to Hans Zinsser in Rats, Lice and History, the unusual rapid rise of Christianity may have been a response to despair in the general populace caused by a series of pandemics in the first centuries of the Common Era. The maintainers of Christian dogma took alarm at the increasing disparity between their calendars and the seasons. Surely, if the dogma was correct, and few doubted this, God would be annoyed if the Holy Days were being kept on some other day. Since the pandemics never went away for very long, this was manifest evidence for God’s annoyance. Isn’t justificationism wonderful?

The solution to the calendar problem was to encourage astronomy. While careful, scientific scrutiny of the heavens produced the desired result — better and more accurate calendars — it also had some unfortunate consequences. It split the Christian dogmatists into two warring factions: those who supported the newer, more accurate calendar and those who opposed its introduction, because, well, it was contrary to dogma to actually change things that were obviously put in place by God. Explaining things (justification) was OK, but change? Ptui!

There seems to be a perennial tension between two opposing viewpoints throughout the known history of the human race. One is that life is a zero-sum game and the other that life is not a zero-sum game. The zero-sum game believers consist of the controllers and those willing to be controlled: sheep and shepherds. The sheep are happy because, well, they have been told by the shepherds they should be. Anyway, after they have been eaten, they can pass on to a better place if they have been good little sheep and a worse one if they have been b-a-a-a-a-d sheep who don’t believe that life is a zero-sum game.


In his writing, Popper continually argues against what he calls justificationism — that is, the propensity to attempt to merely confirm one’s prejudices. Put simply, this takes the form of, for example, the proposition that all swans are white. Justification merely requires enumerating all the confirmatory sightings of white swans. Black swans in Tasmania can either be taken as a falsification of the original proposition, or be dismissed by declaring that observations of Tasmania’s black swans are merely anecdotal, or no ornithologist has ever seen a black swan.

Finding confirmations demonstrates the utility of an idea, but will never demonstrate its correctness, or nearness to truth. We can watch the sun rise in the east and set in the west until we are blue in the face, but that does not prepare us for the experience of passing beyond the Polar Circle where the sun does not rise and set every twenty four hours all year round.


Ultimately, Popper’s ideas are anti-authoritarian and anti-dogma, thus threatening those who would have us live by The Official Rules — in a word, Despots. It should come as no surprise then that his ideas annoy the sheep and their shepherds.

Thought for the day:

Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen, and thinking what nobody has thought.

Albert Szent-Gyorgi


2 thoughts on “On Sheep and Shepherds

  1. I’ll tell you what I like about old Popper: his loving and justified attacks against quacks and loons like chiropractors. He was right, and rightly pointed out, that for these kinds of folks, any observation could be and was used to confirm their belief in their practices.

    The reason that is a good tack is because we have observed, in past theories, that not all observations do confirm them. We have also seen that those theories that make such a claim are eventually seen as false. Therefore, we are rightly suspicious that any theory which claims to fit all observations will eventually be proved false.

    I can’t agree with P on the philosophy of this approach. For imagine we have a true theory. Not a mostly true, or “practically” true, or merely useful theory. But true full stop. Then all observations will corroborate that theory. They must, because the theory is true. Falsifing this theory cannot happen.

    But to end on a good note, his “Open Society” is a book well worth reading.A

  2. My dear Briggs, I think like many you are confusing falsify with falsifiable. A theory may very well be true, but we can never be certain that it is true. We can only ever be certain that a theory is false when its predictions fail. Usually, there is more than one theory to explain some particular set of phenomena. Popper wrote that in such a circumstance, we needed some method of theory preference. The better theory was the one that was most likely to be falsified when tested.

    He gave for an example the prediction of General Relativity that light would be bent by gravity. Eddington’s test of this prediction corroborated GR. It could have falsified GR. Theories that make such bold predictions are preferable to theories that do not and are therefore less amenable to falsification. I am not in the least bit bothered by the lack of absolute certainty (faith) that any particular theory is true.

    I think that your major message has much in common with Popper: we are far too certain of ourselves, far too often. The Git’s life experiences would seem to corroborate this.

    Of course if the recent falsification of GR, the discovery that neutrinos travel faster than photons, is confirmed then a naive falsificationist would proclaim the demise of GR. No Popperian would do so. Will this phenomenon be explicable within the GR framework? I would be surprised if it wasn’t; there’s little point in throwing out babies with the bathwater. BTW I heard about the neutrino problem some years ago, so it is very likely real, not just an artefact of a particular experiment.

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