exploring the relationship between social science and software development methodologies: a blog by Pascal Belouin

Falsificationism could be understood as a solution to the problems entailed by the use of inductive reasoning for the construction of genuine scientific knowledge, which was introduced by Karl Popper in the middle of the twentieth century. Even though it has since been the subject of criticisms, this concept provoked a redefinition of the line of demarcation between scientific and nonscientific knowledge.

Inductive reasoning was introduced in the social sciences as a method of knowledge construction by a school of thought known as positivism, which introduced a way to demarcate valid scientific knowledge from meaningless statements, by rejecting any knowledge that would not directly be based on experience. It could be understood as the process of taking a series of observations, and then generalising the regularities being observed so that a general law could be devised; According to a positivist standpoint, this new law would then deserve to be called scientific, and could be used to scientifically predict and explain a particular phenomenon. Although very successful in the natural sciences (and considering the fact that empiricist studies of the social world have provided a solid basis for devising social policies and explain certain aspects the social world), this positivist approach has been increasingly challenged during the twentieth century, as the values and prejudices of its advocates seemed to greatly influence their findings and conclusions. This problem is particularly well demonstrated by the way positivist and empiricist studies tended to justify social or racial inequalities in western societies. Stephen Jay Gould’s critic of Morton’s use of scientific methods to demonstrate and justify the superiority of the white man (Gould, 1981) is a great illustration of the problems entailed by the use of the scientific method when applied to the study of human beings, and shows the situatedness of such demonstrations.

Another important point of debate regarding this philosophy is the problems that arise from the use of inductive reasoning for the construction of scientific knowledge. One could briefly summarise these problems in three main points.

First, one could consider what has been called the psychological problem of induction, as identified by Hume: “The supposition that the future resembles the past is not founded on arguments of any kind, but is derived entirely from habit.” (Hume, 1739: Book 1, Part 3, Section 12e). Indeed, one could argue that it is not legitimate and almost a “trick of the mind” to imply that an observation that has been repeated a number of times will occur again, and that this expectation results of a human psychological predisposition. It would therefore be unscientific to declare true any statement about situations that have not yet occurred.

In addition, according to Smith (Smith, 1998, p.107), another argument against inductive reasoning is suggested by P.F Strawson, who quite simply states that one could wonder if it would not be self-contradictory. As being itself a theory that is not based on experience, one could argue that it violates its own principle. Furthermore, the use of inductive reasoning implies the assumption that valid scientific knowledge can be based on what are ultimately human sensations, which can also be a reason to be more cautious towards its conclusions.

Finally, the method of verification of the general laws constructed through the use of inductive reasoning could also be the object of criticisms. Indeed, according to the advocates of this positivist philosophy, the general laws and theories born from the use of inductive reasoning can be verified by repeatedly performing additional observations that would confirm the validity of the theory being examined. Therefore, inductive reasoning, although useful for prediction purposes, makes difficult the creation of new scientific knowledge and could result in its stagnation.

The new falsificationist approach proposed by Popper attempted to save empiricism from the flaws inherent to the use of inductive reasoning by introducing a new demarcation criterion between science and non-science. Popper proposed that the distinction should not be made between true statements of the world as it is observed and meaningless statements not based on experience; He suggested instead that statements are never meaningless, but could be unscientific if not confirmed by experience. Therefore, truth is no longer an absolute, but theories can be closer to truth than other (this concept is known as verisimilitude): The distinction should not be made between true and false statements but between testable and non-testable ones, which can then be categorised as pseudo sciences. Replacing verification by falsification as a new way to apprehend scientific knowledge entailed a new attitude towards the role of theories, seen as the products of a fertile human imagination that needs to be “cleansed” through the use of empirical data, and provided new grounds for the criticism of theories such as Marxism and Psychoanalysis, although falsificationism is not exempt of criticisms itself and raises new issues regarding knowledge construction.


Gould, S.J (1981) The Mismeasure of Man.

Hume, D. (1739) A Treatise of Human Nature.

Smith, M.J. (1998) Social Science In Question: Towards a Postdisciplinary Framework, London, Sage/The Open University.

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§267 · April 13, 2010 · Theory · Tags: , , , , , · [Print]

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