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?