A Scientific Way to Call BS on Someone’s Argument

Sir Karl Popper, Sigmund Freud, Albert Einstein, and the difference between science and pseudoscience.

My friends and I joke that a lot of films credit any kind of mental disorder of a character usually to either parental abuse, mummy/daddy issues, or some kind of trauma that occurred in the past.

Personally, I blame Sigmund Freud for this whole debacle. In case you are a big Freud fan, I don’t mean to offend you, but I’ve some serious issues when people engage in predicting the past, rather than the future. In other words, when you use the past to justify the present.

For example, if you diagnose that a certain startup has failed miserably (or has succeeded stupendously) for such and such (obvious) reasons, I’ve got very little to counter your reasoning. And that’s exactly what a lot of business journalists do.

They write post-hoc analyses with titles like, “How Square Became a $30 Billion Company by Reimagining Payments,” or “How Pinterest Became an $11 Billion Company by Organising the World’s Hobbies” that vehemently pisses me off.

On top of that, the same trait is often used both to credit the success of one company, and the failure of a different company. It’s hilarious! Yet these types of articles are often huge among the readers. But I call BS on them, and not without a strong ground.

Predicting the past is what I call, a pseudo-intellectual’s job. It doesn’t matter if you are right or wrong in your prediction, because there’s no way to empirically verify your claim.

Sir Doktor Professor Karl Raimund Popper calls these kinds of unverifiable claims pseudoscience.

Emerging at roughly the same point in time, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein both made predictions with the intention to help us better understand the world. 

Freud predicted that our childhood experiences have a heavy impact on who we grow up to be. 

Meanwhile, Einstein waited patiently for a solar eclipse that could disprove his entire general theory of relativity, depending on what it would reveal about how light travels through space. 

Sir Popper (born in 1902) grew up observing these predictions with keen interest, and he noticed that these great thinkers applied very different methods.

Freud’s method allowed him to be able to make just about any data point work in favour of his theory. He could explain a person’s social issues both in terms of over parenting, or lack thereof.

But Einstein was making a different kind of prediction. Instead of predicting the past as a justification for the present, he was looking ahead, and trying to predict the future state of affairs.

His method was full of risk, and his whole reputation depended upon it. A single solar eclipse in 1919 had the power to finish off his general theory of relativity.

Popper observed that Einstein had more skin in the game than Freud. Unlike Einstein, Freud always had the privilege to predict the past differently to always confirm his theories, and there’s no proper way to rebut his claims.

Popper was convinced that methods like Freud’s, that only serve to confirm precomposed theories are pseudoscience, as they can be used to prove just about anything.

Let me elaborate: consider the existence of Santa Claus. Evidence is lying all around about his existence. Apart from the gifts under the tree, there are all these songs, stories, TV shows, movies, and all these people who believe in his existence. They all can easily combine to confirm your belief in Santa.

In fact, this method based on finding confirming evidence can be used to convince you of just about anything—the science behind astrology, the existence of god, the new investment scheme that would turn you into a millionaire, etc.

But it’s only by seeking to disprove Santa’s existence that you can demonstrate his unreality. The correct approach, as discussed in the previous article, is to disconfirm a theory rather than confirm it, when you begin to test it.

But there’s no actual way to test Freud’s predictions, thereby rendering them as mere pseudoscience. Science by design allows empirical testing, and enough room for falsification. In other words, science disconfirms, while pseudoscience confirms.

This is the modern scientific thinking that we accept today: testable, refutable, falsifiable. In Popper’s words, “If observation shows that the predicted effect is definitely absent, then the theory is simply refuted.” This means a good theory must have an element of risk in it. It must be able to be proven wrong under stated conditions.

So how do we actually know if something is true? Well, we don’t. It is far easier to know if something is not true, but almost never possible to know if something is true with all certainty.

NNT elaborates this in The Black Swan:

“I am saying that a series of corroborative facts is not necessarily evidence. Seeing white swans does not confirm the nonexistence of black swans. There is an exception, however: I know what statement is wrong, but not necessarily what statement is correct. If I see a black swan I can certify that all swans are not white! If I see someone kill, then I can be practically certain that he is a criminal. If I don’t see him kill, I cannot be certain that he is innocent.”

So where does this leave us? 

The takeaway from this article is that you have to be open to the idea that your beliefs might be false—because that’s the only way holding onto them can really mean anything.

Otherwise, we’re all just believing whatever others are saying with no grounds for adjudication between beliefs. So don’t cling to your ideas, claims, and beliefs. The day they are falsified, abandon them. As Einstein would have done. 

Continue your never-ending noble quest of seeking the truth.


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