Why Discrimination Is Reasonable, According to Karl Popper

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’. Well that seems discriminating, doesn’t it? But while he said this, an idea popped into my mind: Karl Popper’s 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 – claims that cannot be refuted. 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 not scientific.

Given that there are unfalsifiable claims, there must also be falsifiable claims. An example of the latter would be: All swans are white. You can see why this claim is falsifiable: if you would come to see one swan that is not white, this claim has shown to be false. And even though you are unable to prove that the claim ‘All swans are white’ is true, you can prove that it’s not true – thus falsify it. The assumption underlying the notion of falsifiability is that, as long as a falsifiable claim is not falsified, it should for the time being be accepted. There is after all no reason to say it is false.

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 state the claim ‘All Moroccans are aggressive’ – like my friend did. This claim is clearly falsifiable: one not aggressive Moroccan is sufficient to prove the claim to be false. Now, let’s assume my friend and I go to a bar and meet a few Moroccans. And, as my friend expected, they 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 a problem with claiming that ‘All Swans are white’, until it has been proven to be false. So why would a 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 false? Or in the case of my friend: to hold on to his unfalsified ‘discriminatory’ belief?

Note that I am not claiming that discrimination is reasonable in itself. What I am claiming however is that we cannot accuse people of holding unreasonable beliefs if they (these people) haven’t been proven wrong in holding this belief. For example: 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?

Written by Rob Graumans

3 thoughts on “Why Discrimination Is Reasonable, According to Karl Popper

  1. Pingback: Public Opinion and Information: A Dangerous Combination | A Blog about the Absurdities of Life

  2. Well, your friend most likely holds a biased view. When we want to believe a certain fact about people, we will be looking most likely only for this fact. And, doing so, we will always find some prove for our view, since we (at least unconsciously) fade out relevant counter-evidence.

    The bias in this reasoning might also be deducted from the fact that your friend holds Moroccans accountable for being in a certain mood. Being aggressive is certainly a mental state we human beings are all in from time to time, but naturally not all the time. It is unreasonable to assume otherwise such as your friend does. Therefore, it seems that your friend is actively looking for evidence confirming his conclusion, rather than for falsification of his claim in a true Popperian sense.

    Moreover, I believe that, even without this potential bias, it is our moral duty to question our negative beliefs about others. Knowing that we as humans are good in judging people quickly and putting them into neat categories, we should counter our urges and refrain from quick judgement. Also, we all know that this might cause undeserved harm, should our judgement be mistaken. This, I think, is a question of respect and is something that all human beings deserve; not doing so means wronging people. And, one might add, otherwise peaceful coexistence in society will not work – above all when we are concerned with minorities in multiethnic modern societies. So, I think, yes, you can at least to some extent accuse people for being ignorant about others.

  3. I think if you went to a bar with your friend where some Morrocans were enjoying a quiet beer together you should invite your friend to keep his views to himself. If he is talkative and injudicious when he has a few beers on him his views might be self fulfilling.

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