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November 25, 2008

Thanksgiving, Falsifiability and Karl Popper's Turkey : Past Behavior May Not Indicate Future Performance

Whenever Thanksgiving rolls around my mind roams to many things - I really do have an awful lot to give thanks for. I think about past Thanksgivings and funny stories. And I think about Karl Popper and his turkey.

Sir Karl Popper was, among other things, a primary shaper of the philosophy of science. One of his big points, called falsifiability, was that you really can't prove anything, you can only disprove things. You can't prove that force=mass * acceleration, you can only demonstrate that f=m*a explains a lot of things, and seems to fit a lot of situations. Until somebody brings something better along, f=m*a is a pretty good explanation. And when somebody falsifies it (proves it wrong), that'll give us a reason for find a better explanation - and so on, and so on. In fact, that's his philosophy of science - a discussion of competing ideas and explanations, each eventually falsified and replaced by better, an evolving world where populated by survival of the fittest ideas. Of course, Karl Popper said it a lot more eloquently: he said that a scientific theory could be refuted by experience.

Karl Popper's falsifiability thesis was based on a simple premise recently demonstrated by the financial markets: past behavior is no guarantee of future performance.

Karl Popper gave this story: There's a turkey in a farm yard... Every day, Farmer Joe comes out and gives the turkey some really good food. The turkey comes to look forward to Farmer Joe's visits, and every day Farmer Joe appears and gives the turkey good food. Life is great, the trend continues, and the Turkey is feeling pretty confident of it's understanding of the world. Until the day Farmer Joe arrives, cuts the Turkey's head off, and prepares it for Thanksgiving dinner. The Turkey's observations and hypothesis, which explained and predicted the world over the short term, were of no use in predicting future behavior.

Whenever I think I have Life figured out, I remember Karl Popper's turkey, who was pretty confident until that last moment. The life of the fatted calf is good, up to a point. I wonder about the American dream, and companies canceling pension plans, and I think more people should read Karl Popper.

Karl Popper proposed that science's acceptance of any law or rule was only tentative, subject to subsequent falsification. Pop culture sound bite: In the Animatrix series of short films, the protaganist in "Kid's Story" is named Michael Karl Popper (note the tombstone in this Youtube).

Karl Popper has done very interesting things in several fields, and besides his tale of the Thanksgiving Turkey, I especially appreciate his Three Worlds of Knowledge.


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