The Quest for Science’s Holy Grail (Through Falsification)

Just because there are grails or theories that are false does not mean that the one true Holy Grail or the one true scientific theory is impossible to find.

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By Melody Xu

Illustration by Charlotte Southall

A common theme through science (and any field, honestly), is to set it apart from other fields. Perhaps more so in science, there is a desire to separate the “imposters,” the so-called pseudosciences, from being included underneath the scientific umbrella. This is an issue that has plagued philosophers of science for years, sparking debate and existential crises since the beginning of time. Surely, there is a common theme along the pseudosciences that links them together and sets them apart from the actual sciences. But what is this difference? How is pseudoscience different from science?

One of the most well-known theories for this demarcation problem comes from Karl Popper. Hailed as one of the best philosophers of science of the twentieth century, the Austrian-Brit rejected the traditional model of the scientific method which had prevailed since the time of Francis Bacon, choosing instead to turn to the concept of empirical falsification. The concept of falsification serves as a filter for hypotheses; the core of the concept states that a hypothesis is scientific if and only if there is a potential to refute it through observation. The underlying theme is that science is and should involve risk-taking. Hypotheses and theories, such as astrology or Marxism, that are all-encompassing and can explain any new data that is found, are in a sense unworthy of the title of science.

There are two main claims that come along with Popper’s idea of falsification. The first is that deductive logic is heavily intertwined with the concept of falsification. If a theory consists of a hypothesis and assumptions A, B, and C and the theory is eventually proven to be false, the accompanying hypothesis and assumptions are also false. This claim alone leads to logical issues, the most appalling being that if falsification is the only possible method, the opposite is illegitimate; there can be no confirmation in science! If it is only possible to falsify or reject a theory, confirmation would not only be obsolete, but it would also cease to be possible at all.

After hearing about Popper’s idea of falsification, there always seems to be a wave of emotion that hits people. If there is no such thing as confirmation, if inductive logic is irrelevant and unnecessary, what is there left to do? If an integral part of science is to uncover the truth, to find accurate descriptions of nature and natural phenomena, can we proceed knowing that there is no method of confirmation possible?

There is, of course, a concept that rests gently between falsification and confirmation which is known as fallibilism, which holds that there can never be absolute certainty in any theory. An idea that is upheld by most scientists and philosophers, it allows for the different levels of confirmation of theories through possible evidence. Some data can support a claim better than others can.

There is an analogy that is often used to describe this issue, which was also used by my Science and Technology Studies professor when I approached him with this problem. Imagine the quest for the single true Holy Grail. There are countless false grails that are present, sometimes naturally occurring and sometimes put forth by people to trick others, but they all initially glow with the light that the one true Holy Grail has. There is no reason to not believe that the grail that you hold is the real one and therefore, you hold onto it until it stops glowing. Once the light is gone and it’s been decided that it is not real, you begin the quest for a new one. Regardless of how many grails you find, people who truly wish to find it will continue their search and hope to find the real one. Different scientific theories are like different grails; just because there are grails or theories that are false does not mean that the one true Holy Grail or the one true scientific theory is impossible to find. Science is just as much about finding the truth as it is about rejecting the lies; each cause is just as noble as the other.

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