A while ago, I had a discussion with a friend of mine: we were talking about how people from different cultures interacted with each other. My friend claimed – and he was quite serious about it – that ‘All Moroccans are aggressive’. ‘How do you know?”‘ I asked him, ‘Have you met all Moroccans?’. ‘No’, he said, ‘but the ones I’ve met, were all aggressive’. And while he said this, an idea popped into my mind: Karl Popper and his falsification theory. And I came to a rather unexpected conclusion…
You might have heard of Karl Popper. He is a big name in (the history of) philosophy of science. Popper was a proponent of a tenet called ‘critical rationalism‘, and he is best known for the notion of ‘falsifiability‘ he came up with, in which falsifiability refers to ‘the inherent testability of a scientific hypothesis’. Popper used the notion of falsifiability as a criterium to distinguish science from what he called ‘pseudo-science’, in which a pseudo-science would be any possible ‘science’ that makes unfalsifiable claims. An example of an unfalsifiable claim would be: God exists. It is impossible – by means of empirical investigation – to falsify this claim. Therefore, according to Popper, religion, or at least this religious claim, is non-scientific.
Given that there are unfalsifiable claims, there must also be falsifiable claims: an example of the latter which is often used is: All swans are white. You can see why this claim is falsifiable: if you’d come to see one swan that is non-white, this claim has proven to be wrong. And even though you’re unable to prove the claim that ‘All swans are white’ is true, you can prove that it’s not-true – thus falsify it. The presumption underlying the notion of falsifiability is that, as long as a falsifiable claim is not falsified, it should for the time being accepted to be true. There is after all no reason to suppose it is not.
Now, let’s go back to my friend and his seemingly discriminatory beliefs. Because if you take a closer look, it appears that discrimination and falsifiability are two sides of the same coin. Why is that? Well, let’s assume that we would pose the hypothesis that ‘All Moroccans are aggressive’ – like my friend seemed to do. This claim is clearly falsifiable: one non-aggressive Moroccan is sufficient to prove the claim wrong. Now, let’s say we’d go to a bar and meet a few Moroccans. And, as my friend expected, these people are indeed aggressive. Thus far, Popper couldn’t blame my friend for holding on to the claim ‘All Moroccans are aggressive’. After all, the claim hasn’t been falsified yet.
The point being: doesn’t my friend apply the same method as is used in the sciences? Making bold conjectures and, based on data, either refute them or not? We don’t seem to have much of a problem with claiming that all ‘Swans are white, until it has been proven wrong. So why would a different claim applying the same ‘scientific’ methods, when applied to members of our own species, suddenly be discriminating? Isn’t it utterly reasonable to hold on to your claims until they’ve proven to be wrong? Or in the case of my friend: to hold on to his ‘discriminatory belief’?
Note that I am not claiming that discrimination is reasonable in itself. What I am claiming is that we cannot accuse people of holding seemingly unreasonable beliefs if they (these people) haven’t been proven wrong in holding this belief. In other words: although we might have had good experiences with Moroccans, they - my friend, for example – might not. And, given Popper’s theory, this makes their beliefs no less reasonable to hold than ours.
What do you think?