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If one looks at the roots of science, it is not founded on being right, but on being easy to prove wrong. Popper's concept of falsification puts this in words.

I see many who see the absence of falsification of a theory and make the fallacious assumption that that is proof that that theory is right. I know the general fallacy of "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." However, in the modern era, I am finding this fallacy occurring more and more often with regard to scientific theories. Theories are deemed "proven" because of lack of evidence to the contrary. This can cause great consternation when the theory is later proven false and a new model put in place. We have to explain why a "proven" concept is suddenly now wrong, when it was not wrong yesterday. It is often latched onto by those who approach the world with alternate viewpoints to cry "See! All of science is false!"

Given that this is a major issue to be address in the philosophy of science, I'm wondering if there is a word which is given to this fallacy explicitly with respect to the falsifiability of scientific theories. It is not uncommon for special instances of a general pattern to be given a name to facilitate communication. I'm wondering if this may have already happened here, so that I can use the best terminology I can.

  • How did you compare the rate of acceptance of untested theories in the pre-modern vs. modern times? – Dave Jul 17 '15 at 20:06
  • @Dave I intentionally worded the question to only state that I am finding it a lot on the modern era, and not to claim that the rate was actually less in the past. I did insinuate as such, because I felt doing so might be helpful for framing my question such that those answering have a sense of where I am coming from (and may change their approach accordingly). To directly answer your question, I have not done a comparison myself. However, my wording should betray a general belief that it is becoming more of a problem -- this belief should not change the terminology search in the end. – Cort Ammon Jul 17 '15 at 20:32
  • Do the points raised in Asimov's essay "The relativity of wrong" relate to your question at all? In short: Our current major theories work extremely well within their limits, and a new theory would have to do that AND offer stronger explanatory power somehow. Think relativity replacing Newtonian gravity, for example. The theory of Gravity is 'Wrong' in the sense of not being 100% correct, but it's still a useful approximation that we use most of the time. chem.tufts.edu/answersinscience/relativityofwrong.htm – Dave B Jul 17 '15 at 22:10
  • @DaveB I agree with you about it being a useful approximation. What I'm interested in is the transition such theories may undergo from "useful approximation" to "defining the natural laws" which occurs when the absence of falsification is misconstrued as proof of truth. I find the wisest of scientists understand the difference, but conversing with many who are affected by science (i.e. read their social media feeds), it seems many do not. My intuition suggests it is common enough that it might even have been given a name, with which I could better research others' opinions on the topic. – Cort Ammon Jul 19 '15 at 21:16
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    I may have to post a self-answer, after I research further. Through random coincidence on the Physics SE, I was directed to the work of Thomas Kuhn. His work is reasonable popular, and refutes my claim that the issue is a fallacy, replacing it with a definition: "'scientific truth' is defined by the consensus of the scientific community." If my research pans out, it suggests that this is actually not as common of a fallacy as I thought, so it is less likely to have a name of its own. – Cort Ammon Jul 21 '15 at 20:26
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If one looks at the roots of science, it is not founded on being right, but on being easy to prove wrong. Popper's concept of falsification puts this in words.

No fact, or finite set of facts, can prove a scientific theory, or any other kind of theory. It is possible for a fact to contradict a scientific theory. This isn't the same as it being easy to prove a theory wrong. You have to find a consequence of the theory that could be tested, and set up a situation in which this consequence could arise. At every step, you have to make guesses and your guesses could be wrong. You may have a revisit many of your guesses and try to come up with better ideas. All knowledge, scientific or otherwise, is guesswork controlled by criticism. See Is everything just an opinion?.

I see many who see the absence of falsification of a theory and make the fallacious assumption that that is proof that that theory is right. I know the general fallacy of "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence." However, in the modern era, I am finding this fallacy occurring more and more often with regard to scientific theories. Theories are deemed "proven" because of lack of evidence to the contrary. This can cause great consternation when the theory is later proven false and a new model put in place. We have to explain why a "proven" concept is suddenly now wrong, when it was not wrong yesterday. It is often latched onto by those who approach the world with alternate viewpoints to cry "See! All of science is false!"

Scientific knowledge is not proven, nor is any other kind of knowledge. Popper was explicit on this point, see "Realism and the Aim of Science", Chapter I. People who want to claim that some theory or another is proven are just trying to duck responsibility for making their own judgements, and for persuading critics through argument.

Those who claim that the correction of an error is some sort of indication that science is broken are silly. Would they prefer a means of discovering knowledge that never corrects errors? Or do they imagine that they have access to an infallible oracle?

Given that this is a major issue to be address in the philosophy of science, I'm wondering if there is a word which is given to this fallacy explicitly with respect to the falsifiability of scientific theories. It is not uncommon for special instances of a general pattern to be given a name to facilitate communication. I'm wondering if this may have already happened here, so that I can use the best terminology I can.

I don't see that it makes much difference what words you use to describe the mistakes I explained above. The people who make such mistakes don't understand the arguments involved. Until they understand the arguments terminology won't help them understand, and it may give people a false impression that they know something they don't properly understand.

Having said that people who think science proves stuff and those who crow when a scientific theory is refuted are usually both making a mistake Popper called "justificationism": thinking that it is possible and desirable to show that positions are true or probably true. It's very rare for people to understand even this point, so my guess is that you won't need much more terminology and if you do, make it up as you go.

  • Thank you for the word recommendation. I agree, those who do not understand what science actually can do likely will not understand it with or without a word. A word like "justificationism" does help, though, when I lack the will or energy to work with them to a better understanding and seek to put the burden of continuing the conversation on them! – Cort Ammon Jan 13 '16 at 16:24
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From they way you are describing it, the issue should be related to confirmation bias, even though it doesn't constitute a logical fallacy per se (rather a cognitive bias), and it might not answer you question fully.

The reason why I'm thinking about confirmation bias is that you explicitely mention people sceptical against science in general ("alternative" viewpoints), and maybe people with a strong ideological attachement to certain theories.

What I consider a fair description of confirmation bias from wikipedia:

Confirmation bias, also called confirmatory bias or myside bias, is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one's beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities.[Note 1][1] It is a type of cognitive bias and a systematic error of inductive reasoning. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs. People also tend to interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing position. Biased search, interpretation and memory have been invoked to explain attitude polarization (when a disagreement becomes more extreme even though the different parties are exposed to the same evidence), belief perseverance (when beliefs persist after the evidence for them is shown to be false), the irrational primacy effect (a greater reliance on information encountered early in a series) and illusory correlation (when people falsely perceive an association between two events or situations).

There is certainly much more to say about this, and Popper's concepts of 'severe tests' and 'corroboration' could probably be useful in understanding this. For instance, people might consider absence of falsification after weak tests in the same way as they view theories that have undergone and "survived" severe tests.

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Argument from Silence decribes making conclusions from the absence of evidence and the Association Fallacy may be the closest thing to describing why people write off science in general when they hear a reversal of consensus.

More generally, it sounds like your frustration is primarily causes by people's ignorance which is not something you will find easy to fix or describe to them. In flipping through Wikipedia's list of informal fallacies, I have found the following helpful in describing the plethora of ways people misunderstand, misinterpret, and miscommunicate scientific ideas:

  • Argument from ignorance
  • Post hoc ergo propter hoc
  • Nirvana fallacy
  • Kettle logic Fallacy of the single cause
  • False equivalence
  • Argument from authority
  • Fallacy of quoting out of context
  • False attribution
  • Fallacy of division
  • Fallacy of composition
  • Equivocation
  • Argument from silence
  • Appeal to consequences
  • Appeal to emotion
  • Appeal to spite
  • Wishful thinking
  • Appeal to novelty
  • Argumentum ad populum
  • Association fallacy
  • Texas sharpshooter fallacy
  • Straw man
  • Faulty generalization
  • Hasty generalization
  • Argument from analogy
  • Survivorship bias
  • Cherry picking
  • Regression fallacy
  • Referential fallacy

All of the above happen regularly. For example, it is common for a new study to provide a highly qualified statement in statistical terms which is then taken up in the media as a "possible" effect which is then repeated as a cause-and-effect which then goes a million directions using the above fallacies and will live on as a misunderstanding for decades. Then when the next study finds overlapping statistical data, the opposite gets said and confusion begins.

There are also the legitimate "reversals" of scientific consensus which is merely an update to our understanding of things. People who don't understand the most basic concepts of science don't understand the concept of updating understanding and can only see things in the black and white dichotomy of true or false (hey, there's another one - false dichotomy).

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I don't think what you're describing is a logical fallacy. One can start with one of two presuppositions:

  • A theory should be accepted without evidence.
  • A theory should not be accepted without evidence.

Those who say a theory is "proven" in the absence of contrary evidence hold to the first presupposition. But I don't see a fallacy per-se.

  • of course those two presuppositions are mutually exclusive and exhaustive, so every individual will fall into one group or the other. how about - A theory should be considered without evidence. - A theory should not be accepted without evidence. that's both open and principled. – robert bristow-johnson Jan 4 '16 at 1:37
  • What's the point of considering a theory without evidence if you've already decided you won't accept it? Or am I misunderstanding your statement? – Ben Jan 4 '16 at 19:30
  • you might be misunderstanding. "consideration" means neither "acceptance" nor "rejection". the point is that just because there is no evidence (or none as of yet), doesn't mean that a theory is false or without value. so, even without evidence, a given theory is worth considering. but there's a difference between consideration and acceptance. (and BTW, there is a difference between "evidence" and "proof".) – robert bristow-johnson Jan 4 '16 at 20:40

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