Discerning Facts From Opinion
What is falsifiability? How could it help us tell apart facts from opinions? And how can we use this to drive better conversations?
Today we’re talking about a test that helps us to determine what kind of conversation we’re having. Before we dive in, I’m noticing that it certainly looks and feels like winter as I record this: freezing temperatures, snow on the ground, naked trees…
It makes me wonder. What makes winter, winter? Is it the empirical evidence I just described? Is it a combination of facts that it’s late January and I’m located roughly 44 degrees north of the equator? Do I simply believe it’s winter, or is it actually winter? How can I classify this as a fact instead of a belief or opinion?
What Is Falsifiability?
To help answer questions like this, let me introduce the concept of falsifiability. First, a little context. Wikipedia defines the philosophy of science as “the branch of philosophy concerned with the “foundations, methods and implications of science.” A key issue in the philosophy of science is the demarcation problem, which simply put asks the question, “What qualifies as science?” In other words, what are the boundaries of science? What makes something a scientific matter, as opposed to, say, art, literature or an opinion?
Enter falsifiability, a concept articulated by Austrian-British philosopher Karl Popper as one solution to the demarcation problem. We say that a statement is falsifiable if it’s logically capable of being proven false, or contradicted. For example, the statement, “It will snow tomorrow” is falsifiable, because it is logically possible that it will not snow tomorrow. By contrast, the statement, “It is what it is” is non-falsifiable; it can’t be proven false or contradicted.
Note that what matters is the ability to contradict the statement. Just because a statement is falsifiable, it doesn’t mean that it’s false. Here’s another example. The statement, “It rains every day, everywhere” is falsifiable. All we need is that it doesn’t rain somewhere, on at least one day, for the statement to be false. By contrast, the statement, “It will rain someday” is not falsifiable. Even if it doesn’t rain anywhere today, or tomorrow, that won’t suffice to prove the statement false. Even if we go to the parts of the Atacama Desert in Chile where allegedly it hasn’t rained in over 500 years – “It will rain someday” remains a non-falsifiable statement.
One thing I find interesting about falsifiability is that it seems to apply to many topics. It’s not topics themselves that are falsifiable or not; it’s specific statements about a topic which can be falsifiable or not, such as the concept of “rain” in our last example.
What is it Good For?
Now, maybe you find this interesting so far, which is great. But how is this concept useful? Like I said earlier, falsifiability is one possible answer to the demarcation problem. If a statement is falsifiable, it qualifies as science, or can be scientifically studied. Non-falsifiable statements are not science: they are beliefs or opinions. Using our example, “It rains everywhere every day" can be scientifically explored, although it’s false from the onset. Whereas the statement, “It will rain someday” is perhaps poetry or wishful thinking, but it’s not a scientific matter.
But there’s more. Falsifiability also offers one possible solution to another problem of the philosophy of science, which is the problem of induction. Let’s say that I drop something and it falls. How many times do I have to try this before I conclude that “unsupported things fall to the ground”? I can’t possibly witness every single case of something going unsupported and falling in order to confirm my hypothesis. That is the problem of induction.
However, if I were to carefully place an anvil on a stool made of straw, and once it is “supported” there I carefully let it go, both anvil and stool would instantly collapse to the ground. And I only have to do this once to prove my hypothesis false. And this makes sense; after all, the notion of “gravity” isn’t related to the notion of “support”.
Therefore, falsifiability allows us to “place bold bets,” as it were, on scientific hypotheses. We can refine or discard our hypotheses if and when a contradiction is found, which may be easier than proving that the hypothesis always holds. If it’s logically possible that something is false, it can be proved whether it’s true. That’s the power of falsifiability. And it doesn’t apply to the empirical sciences only, but also to logical thinking in general.
Falsifiability isn’t perfect, and it’s not without criticism and drawbacks. But I find that it can be very useful in helping us to have better conversations. Here’s why. Some of our beliefs and opinions are falsifiable. With the right evidence and logical arguments, we can persuade others of them, or alternatively, we can be persuaded that they are not true. However, non-falsifiable ideas are just beliefs or opinions, in which case facts, evidence or logical arguments may not be persuasive against them. Knowing this, we can adjust our goals and approach on specific conversations.
Let’s look at two applications of this idea. Here’s the first: conspiracy theories are almost always non-falsifiable. As criminologist Aaron Brake puts it, when you raise skepticism or concern against a conspiracy theory, you may be told something like, “But that’s what they want you to believe!” So, in a twisted use of logic, facts or evidence against the conspiracy theory become evidence for the conspiracy theory.
Let’s revisit the flat Earth example from Episode 2. Pick any two cities connected by a direct flight, and you’ll notice two things. First, on a flat Earth map, the distance between them will be different than the real-world distance. If you compute the flight duration using the average speed of a commercial flight, it will take a lot less than in real life. You would need supersonic airplanes carrying much more fuel for that to be true. The second thing you’d notice is that the scenery you would see on such a flight will be very different from what you actually see in real life.
When you confront Flat Earthers with this evidence, they’ll say, “But that’s what they want you to believe. They don’t give you the actual speed of airplanes. They don’t have pilots fly the shortest route. The GPS misleads them.” And so forth. Note that these statements are all falsifiable, but the way in which they’re addressed isn’t. “The flight durations are not the ones you’re told.” That’s falsifiable. “Planes are not flying “the shortest route.” That’s falsifiable. “The GPS is misleading.” That’s falsifiable. But it’s not so much about the falsifiability of individual statements or arguments; it’s the overarching idea that the conspiracy theory itself is not falsifiable. That’s how we can use falsifiability to determine that a belief could be a conspiracy theory.
Our second application of falsifiability is shaping conversations about religion, and here’s what I mean. There are many types of religious conversations. I’m going to focus on two. The first one, I’m going to call it “apologetic”. This word, “apologetics,” means “defending the faith.” It’s not apologizing for the faith! It’s defending the faith. It’s putting forth falsifiable arguments along with facts and evidence that seek to demonstrate that statements about a given religion or belief system are true.
As an example, the very first verse of the very first chapter of the very first book in the Bible says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” That is a falsifiable statement. Even before we go into the specifics of how it happened, you and I can have a conversation around the facts and the evidence around the universe being created. Maybe I won’t persuade you, and maybe you won’t persuade me otherwise. Nonetheless, we can have a factual conversation around creation.
The other type of religious conversation, by contrast, is what I’m going to call “testimonial”. It’s a type of conversation that has more to do with sharing my experience with religion – more of an emotional or experiential appeal where I can share how religion has affected my life. It has less to do with establishing the truth or the facts around statements that must be falsifiable.
In this way, falsifiability can help you identify the type of conversation you’re having, and adjust your approach accordingly. If someone is interested in evidence and facts and the veracity of specific aspects of a worldview, an experiential, testimonial type of conversation may not be particularly helpful. Conversely, if a person approaches you trying to understand stress, pain or grief from a belief system perspective, stringing a series of falsifiable statements and facts for them probably won’t help a lot. I wasn’t that interested in testimonies and emotions when I was uncovering the facts and evidence behind Christianity for myself. But conversely, I wouldn’t be very interested in an apologetic speech if I asked someone to deliver a eulogy in a funeral. Falsifiability can help me gauge the type of conversation I should have, and be a better participant as a result.
As a sidebar, I find interesting that this also applies to things I could label as “religious” even if they don’t refer to metaphysical or spiritual realities. And here’s what I mean. One of the definitions of “religious” is, “highly dedicated, as one would be to a religion.” Therefore, in a non-spiritual sense, someone can be said to religiously follow a diet, a workout regime, or a political worldview. And a common pattern in contemporary society is to articulate a problem in a very specific way, and then articulate a solution that directly stems from the definition of the problem. And this combination tends to be non-falsifiable. If you disagree with the solution, you can be perceived as denying or minimizing the problem itself. In this pattern, the solution itself is also not falsifiable. Any facts, data or evidence that seeks to better understand, improve, or question the solution, will face responses such as, “You don’t understand. You’re part of the problem. The problem is so entrenched that those affected are now perpetuating it.” And so forth. It is very similar to religious dogma or mathematical axioms.
English theologian Carl Trueman has made the fascinating observation that some of these ideas even adopt the concept of liturgy. As you may know, liturgy is the customary form of a religious service. You know – When do you stand up? When do you sit down? What do you sing or say, and at what moment in the service? And some social movements today almost have their own liturgy. Specific phrases that are to be used exactly as prescribed. Any attempt to modify or expand them will be rejected. And they may even have specific gestures associated with them.
My point here isn’t to debate these theories right now. I just find their shape interesting. I find they fit this religious conversation approach, and I think it helps me understand them better and have less contentious conversations about them.
In conclusion, I find falsifiability useful to adjust the type of conversation I’m having. If you’re interested in facts, evidence and persuasion, let’s have a conversation around falsifiable statements. We will be able to advance our mutual understanding of our respective worldviews, even if we don’t fully persuade each other. Which doesn’t have to be the only meaningful outcome; there’s progress and value when we understand better what each other thinks and believes. And if I realise that the nature of the conversation is about something non-falsifiable, that doesn’t mean that I can’t have the conversation. It’s just that the conversation will revolve more around the experiential, the opinions, the beliefs, the feelings. It’s going to have more of an emotional appeal, as opposed to being an exchange of facts and evidence seeking logical and rational persuasion. I hope you find this useful going into your conversations as well.