LINGUIST List 13.1330

Sun May 12 2002

Disc: Falsifiability vs. Usefulness

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. Gale, George, RE: 13.1291, Disc: Falsifiability vs. Usefulness
  2. Ahmad R. Lotfi, Disc. : falsifiability vs. usefuleness
  3. Farzad Sharifian, Re: 13.1279, Disc: New: Falsifiability vs. Usefulness

Message 1: RE: 13.1291, Disc: Falsifiability vs. Usefulness

Date: Fri, 10 May 2002 16:07:18 -0500
From: Gale, George <>
Subject: RE: 13.1291, Disc: Falsifiability vs. Usefulness

My research is in the history and philosophy of cosmology. Sometimes
falsifiability works exactly as Popper described it, and for a
straightforward reason: the theorist designs the theory to be a
candidate for Popperian falsifiability.

Hermann Bondi designed his 1948 Steady-state cosmology precisely to
satisfy the Popperian demands. He said so many times in print, and
even contributed suggestions about exactly what evidence would falsify
the theory.

I asked him what he had told his competitors, the Big-bang
cosmologists. He said "Show me some fossils from an earlier universe,
and I'll give up my theory." In 1965 they showed him some fossils,
and, true to his Popperianism, he gave it up.

His behavior was certainly heroic, and few others feel called to this
high standard. However, I must say that several others in the
Steady-state camp were nearly as rigorous--Dennis Sciama comes to
mind, for one. He gave it up when the quasar distribution didn't work
out as predicted.

If someone wanted to deny that there were *genuine* cases of
falsifiability, I suppose that they could defend their hypothesis and
attack the Bondi case. As Lakatos always said, if you don't want to
give up a hypothesis in the face of contrary evidence, then
don't. Nobody can make you do it if you don't want to.

But then Lakatos was always given to sly little smiles when he said
things like this.

I've got the Bondi case written up, and it's supposed to
appear in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy sometime in the next
few days. If anyone would like to take a look at it, drop me a line
and I'll point you toward the article when it appears.

George Gale
Professor of Philosophy & Physical Science
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Message 2: Disc. : falsifiability vs. usefuleness

Date: Fri, 10 May 2002 17:10:26 -0700 (PDT)
From: Ahmad R. Lotfi <>
Subject: Disc. : falsifiability vs. usefuleness

Dan Everett wrote:

> I assert that it (falsifiability) has no application ever.

The concept "usefulness" is also vague and empty unless one
first decides to whom a theoretical statement is going to be
useful. Then the following statements (all of them falsifiable
and also OBSERVTIONALLY adequate) could be useful to a farmer
(in making predictions about the position of the Sun in the
morning sky) but not to a physicist interested in explaining

(1) The Earth turns around the Sun.
(2) The Sun turns around the Earth.
(3) The Sun and the Earth turn around each other.

There are chances that a farmer finds (2) more useful than
others as it is more tangible and "understandable" to him while
an astronomer prefers (1) as it is a DESCRIPTIVELY adequate
while the others are not. In either case, the statements are all
falsifiable. Making them less falsifiable via adding "sometimes"
to each makes any statement useless to everyone. Then
falsifiability is a necessary though not sufficient condition
for usefulness. A theoretical statement may be FALSE but still
useful. A statement that is NOT FALSIFIABLE, on the other hand,
cannot be probed in terms of truth and falsity; hence useless to


Ahmad R. Lotfi

Department of the English Language,
Azad University at Khorasgan Esfahan, IRAN.
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Message 3: Re: 13.1279, Disc: New: Falsifiability vs. Usefulness

Date: Sat, 11 May 2002 13:24:22 +0800
From: Farzad Sharifian <>
Subject: Re: 13.1279, Disc: New: Falsifiability vs. Usefulness

Dear All

In 1999 I presented a paper on this topic and its abstract can be
found in the following address:

With regards to falsifiability I would like to make a few points.

First of all, before we can talk about the falsifiability of
linguistic statements, we have to see if we want to claim that
linguistics is an EMPIRICAL science. Popper proposed falsifiability
with regards to empirical sciences. There are non-empricial sciences
such as mathematics in which the statements made are mainly
'analytic'. Analytic statements are true by virtue of definition as
opposed to synthetic statements of empirical sciences which capture
empirical experience. I'm not really sure if in the first place
everybody wants to call linguistics an empirical science. Think about
statements that are often made in linguistics and see if they are
really synthetic. Isn't that really the case that a lot of statements
are evaluated against how we define linguistic categories such as
'noun', 'complementizar', etc?

Second, Popper was concerned with "the logic of scientific discovery",
which is echoed in the title of one of his books. What in practice
scientists actually do may not really be in consonance with this logic
though. In fact the actual practice of scientists is best captured in
Kuhn's notion of 'paradigm shift'. This however, does not by any means
reduce the validity of the statements made about the logic of
scientific discovery. Popper argued that hypothetico-deductive method
of research is logical whereas inductive method is more psychological,
in the sense that it may have psychological appeal.

Third, Popper defines sciences as systems of theories and maintains
that theories are strict universal statements which couch aspects of
experience. Strict universal statements are "all xs are y" type of
statements, which are not bound by place or time. My recent concern
with this approach is whether nature is in fact amenable to such
statements. Aspects of nature do not really lend themselves to "All
... " type of statements. There are always exceptions. If anything,
it is the human mind that unifies experience and captures it in "All
..." type of propositions. I don't really know any aspect of nature
which is so neat through space and time that can be captured in such
sweeping statements as "All xs are y".

As for "usefulness", I'm not sure if we can turn it into a criterion
which is interpreted in the same way by everybody, at least I can't.

Farzad Sharifian, PhD
Centre for Applied Language and Literacy Research
Edith Cowan University
Western Australia

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