LINGUIST List 13.1291

Thu May 9 2002

Disc: Falsifiability vs. Usefulness

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Dan Everett, RE: 13.1289, Disc: Falsifiability vs. Usefulness
  2. Jens Stengaard Larsen, Disc: Falsifiability vs. Usefulness

Message 1: RE: 13.1289, Disc: Falsifiability vs. Usefulness

Date: Thu, 9 May 2002 04:50:43 -0300
From: Dan Everett <>
Subject: RE: 13.1289, Disc: Falsifiability vs. Usefulness

In reply to Gregg's and Odden's objections to my criticism of
falsifiability and advocacy of usefulness, most of what they say is
answered in my previous postings. But some restatement and
paraphrasing might be useful.

First to Gregg's remarks. Gregg is concerned with how to apply
'falsifiability'. But I assert that it has no application ever. As I
have claimed in my previous postings, the problem with falsifiability
is that it is only a mirage. To be useful, falsifiability would be
able to offer guidance as to how to handle anomalies. But even Popper
allowed for two responses to 'anomalies'. The first is just to
'shelve' the problem. The second is to admit defeat and stamp
'refuted' on the offending/ed theory. But, to quote Lakatos once again
(in Motterlini 1999:p91), "... it is quite clear that deciding on the
demarcation criterion between an unserious anomaly which you can
shelve and a serious one which obliges you to give up the theory is
obviously a *matter of taste* or of the scientist's *authority*."
	I agree with Lakatos and I further believe that this is pretty
much born out in the history of linguistics since the 50s. What counts
as a counterexample often varies from year to year, based on the
decision of a particular authority. 

Now let's consider David Odden's remarks. I found the concluding line
of his reply humorous, so I will quote it here: "Being useful" is not
a useful philosophy of science concept..." This is circular. However,
I will assume that David meant it as a play on words and will not hold
him accountable for it. (It is, though, somewhat like the index to
Popper's Conjectures and Refutations which has one entry 'Marxism -
made irrefutable' and another 'Marxism - refuted' (and this is funny
because since Marxism is supposed to be unfalsifiable it is by
definition unrefutable)).

David Odden makes the following remark, for which I am very happy
because it states very clearly something which I think is utterly the
wrong way to think about science: "My goal is to gain objective
knowledge of the nature of reality, which means to be able to
distinguish statements about the universe which are true, from those
which are false. My remarks are attuned to that particular goal, and
the reasoning may be less cogent to someone with a different goal."

James's concept of usefulness starts from a far less sanguine picture
about the capabilities of Homo sapiens sapiens. It takes seriously the
Darwinian idea that human beings are primates attempting to cope with
their world and that they have no special faculties which would allow
them to justify claims to have apprehended 'objective knowledge of the
nature of reality'. I think that the very idea that this could be a
goal of science or human activity is a cultural phenomenon. For
example, my dear Piraha friends in the Amazon would never claim that
they know the world as it really is. To them the world is just what
the spirits teach them about it. And different spirits teach different
	While I commend David for his clear statement of his goals,
one wonders what a 'true objective knowledge of reality' would look
like. Does this mean that once David has found an objectively true
statement about phonology that it *could never* be revised? And if it
could be revised in what sense was it ever 'objective knowledge of

David also says that "The danger of the "just a tool" perspective is
encapsulated in the pragmatics of "just", in that it conveys a sense
of unimportance to theoretical statements. If theoretical statements
are "just tools", what are they just tools to do?"
	Why, to help us get through the world without bumping our
heads, David. That is enough, I think. To get by, to have an idea
where to step in the dark. I cannot imagine that anybody's theoretical
statements can ever have been said to have gained us a glimpse of
'objective truth'. That is a lofty goal. In fact, I think only
unevolved beings could attain it.

David then says "Thus, theoretical statements are not tools, they are
the actual goal." Well, if that is the case, then tenure brings a
lifetime of opportunities for enjoyment and indulgence. One may sit
around and reach his/her goals by merely writing down their
theory. But this definition of 'goal' is far more subjective and
intersubjectively variable than usefulness.

David concludes by saying "...I don't know what "useful" means: it
appears to mean that someone has found some use for a theory, for some
purpose. I can't compute whether a theory is "useful". "
	Oh, I think you can quite easily, David. I think that this is
probably the only criterion you or I actually work with. Can you
compute whether a shovel is useful? Sure - did it help you do the job?
Is statement 'x' more useful than statement 'y'? What is hard about
that? Did it help you attain your goal?

Here are some words to help understand 'usefulness': "Pragmatists
think that if something makes no difference to practice, it should
make no difference to philosophy. This conviction makes them
suspicious of the distinction between justification and truth, for
that difference makes no difference to my decisions about what to do."
(Rorty 1998, p19 - in his chapter "Is truth a goal of inquiry...") I
think that the best we can hope for is to have *justified* our
assertions by their practical consequences. But this is quite a bit,
you know. Don't underestimate it. And don't think that 'falsifiable'
is a loftier goal. Falsifiability fails the usefulness metric because
it makes no difference to practice, ever.
	Ultimately the epistemology of John Lennon seems closest to
what I am after "Whatever gets you through the night". There is a lot
of darkness in the world. Falsifiability sheds no light to walk by.

Dan Everett
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Message 2: Disc: Falsifiability vs. Usefulness

Date: Thu, 9 May 2002 11:32:07 +0200 (CEST)
From: Jens Stengaard Larsen <>
Subject: Disc: Falsifiability vs. Usefulness

Dan Everett:

> Many linguists claim that theoretical statements
> should be strong and falsifiable. As I read
> recently "Needless to say, whether they are right or
> wrong, our theories should always make strong,
> falsifiable claims." But let's think about this. For
> example, what could falsify this very statement?

The fact that someone challenges it - then it's no
longer "needless to say".

> If there is no way to falsify that statement, is it
> still worth making?

That would depend on who "we" are in the "our". The claim can have
one status if it's about people who are trying to develop theories
about what the human language is, and another status if it's about
people who are dealing with a specific language.

> Let's consider an old alternative to falsifiability,
> 'usefulness'. Usefulness may not be *ultimately*
> incompatible with falsifiability, but it often is in
> practice. According to this alternative, the more
> useful statement is better than the more falsifiable
> statement. This is because the statements of a
> are just tools to perform a task.

Well, if the task is seeking the truth, then falsifiability _is_
rather useful.

> Now, to be sure, being clear about what we say
> usually helps communication. I like that aspect of
> falsifiability. But other aspects of it worry me.
> What does 'strong' mean in the statement cited? It
> means narrowing down the world as much as possible,
> e.g. as the phonological statement that "No syllable
> is ever greater than three moras in length" narrows
> down the prosodic world. And yet this statement is
> really neither here nor there. Its significance
> depends on how useful it is in accomplishing certain
> goals.
> To see this more clearly, consider the following two
> statements:
> (1) Sentences of natural language never surpass
> letters in length.
> (2) Agents, more often than not, but not always, are
> expressed as topics.
> Statement (1) is explicit,


> strong,

No. In order to make it strong, you'd have to change "never" to
"cannot" and explain why.

> clear, and falsifiable.
> Statement (2) is clear, not very
> explicit, somewhat weak, and difficult to falsify.
> Still, though, (2) seems eminently superior to (1)
> advice for a new linguist.

Sure, if describing a new language is the task the linguist is trying
to solve, then expecting the topic of a sentence to be the agent is a
useful prejudice. But if science is about replacing prejudice with
something better, then the new linguist won't be serving science that
way, no matter how useful that linguist's work may be otherwise.

> Just as falsifiability is most associated with Karl
> Popper, so 'usefulness' is most associated with
> William James. As I understand him, James would
> linguists to first ask what it is they want to do
> then how this or that statement or condition, e.g.
> falsifiability, helps them to achieve their goal.
> Pursuing this, asking whether a statement is
> falsifiable is like asking whether a hammer is
> falsified when I fail to tune my guitar with it.

If you don't know in advance what a hammer is, that is the way to
proceed: "A hammer is a guitar-tuning device" - true or false?
> Falsifiability is, in practice, like snipe-hunting.
> Pick your favorite theory. Can you really imagine
> circumstances under which its founders would admit
> that enough of its statements had been falsified
> to warrant chucking it?

I'm not sure what a snipe is and how you chuck one, but it is true
that old, falsified theories in science generally only die out
together with their proponents.

> The typical response of the clever person in the
> of counterevidence is to argue that the
> counterevidence is in fact evidence *for* their
> theory. And I think this is quite a
> reasonable response - because it can be useful to
> hang on to your theory. 

Yes, or because the evidence is so specific that it is better used to
refine a corner of the theory rather than falsify the core of it.

> If this is true, then falsifiability fails to
> for theory maintenance in the face of apparent
> counterexamples, even among those who espouse it.
> But it also fails to account for theory shift among
> its proponents in the *absence* of counterexamples.

Theories can be changed for other reasons than being falsified - the
new theories can be more economical, explaining more with less claims,
for instance.


Jens S. Larsen

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