The Shrink’s Links: Karl Popper and the Refrigerator Light

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I got on an energy-saving kick once and became concerned about the light inside the refrigerator. Did it really turn off when I shut the door? Little did I realize how this question took me to a place shared with one of the most renown of modern philosophers, Karl Popper.

The question about the light was an important one because if the light stayed on when I shut the door then it was wasting energy, both by uselessly lighting the inside of the refrigerator and by heating it up. I studied the button in the door jam. It turned off the light when I pressed it. The door pressed the button when I shut the door. Therefore, when I shut the door, the light must go off. That might have settled it, except I had been studying psychology, the behaviorists in particular.

The behaviorists said that we should not be making claims about anything we could not directly observe. We shouldn’t be talking about the unconscious, for example, or any thoughts and feelings of another person, because they were all interior events. The only thing, they said, that we could study in psychology was what was on the outside; the behavior, in other words. That’s why they were called behaviorists.

Whether the light was going off when I shut the refrigerator door was an interior event, much like another person’s thoughts and feelings. It was true that I could directly observe the operation of the button by my finger or the door while it was shutting, but, whether the light remained off when the door was shut all the way was conjecture and thus not worthy of the claims of science.

I began to make plans to cut a hole in the door with an acetylene torch or remove the food so I could crawl in. That seemed the only way to directly observe. I might have actually done that, but I had another thought. Even if I did directly observe the light going off when I crawled in or cut a hole in the door, how would I know whether it continued to go off when I wasn’t there to see it? Yeah, I know that it’s highly probable that it would, but how could I be certain?

It’s a good thing I was studying psychology because I soon recognized that this quest for certainty was ill conceived, maladaptive, and dysfunctional. It was the same quest for certainty seen in obsessives, the worried, the panicked, the psychotic, and the paranoid. It was also the same quest for certainty demanded by the scientific method.

That was precisely Popper’s point. Popper lived in the 20th century, a refugee from Nazi Germany, a dissenter from the prevailing philosophical position of the day, logical positivism, to which the behaviorists belonged. His thing was that science was not as rigorous as claimed. Most of science, he said, was really pseudo-science, making untestable hypotheses and relying on conjecture and inductive leaps far more than admitted. Even what is assumed to be direct observation is infected with biases and shaped by unconscious theory.

To say that something is not a verifiable claim, not science, in other words, is not the same as saying that it’s worthless. Popper puts the entire field of psychology into the pseudo-science category. I agree with Popper that psychology often says it knows what its talking about far more than it does. That is not to say, though, that it cannot illuminate, inform, and inspire. In fact, you could also say the same about Popper’s assertions.

The point in revealing that this emperor called science is wearing no clothes is to question authority. That’s Popper’s thing, too; questioning and undermining authority. When people attempt to exert power, they do so by claiming to represent the truth. We see this in totalitarian societies of all types. Popper thought he saw this in the way science is used to exercise authority.

I know quite a few scientists. I know them as humble people. They are very careful not to say more than the data suggests. One only has to read the conclusion section of any scientific paper to see how painstaking they are to say exactly what they mean and not go overboard by claiming more than their experiment suggests. They couch their assertions in so many qualifiers it’s often hard to tell just what they are saying.

No, it’s not the scientists that make overreaching claims; it’s the people who attempt to use science to gain or keep power. You hear this sometimes in the respectful tones they use to report science: “studies show… the doctor says… research tells us… we need more education in….” You see it in the way people will defer to MDs and PhDs. Underneath these self-effacing, deferential tones is a person attempting to control you, to use the authority of “Truth” against you, to be influential in the halls of power.

Now, please don’t go off and think that any assertion is just as good as any other, that the claims of astrology, intelligent design, The Flat Earth Society, climate change deniers, your favorite psychic, and the most outlandish crank should be taken as seriously as those of a board certified physician, a conference full of physicists, or Nobel laureates. Some deserve more of a hearing than others. The point is that every claim needs to be evaluated on it’s own merits, not on the merits of the person professing it. Every physician, physicist, or laureate, is a person and subject to all the biases and prejudices to which people are susceptible.

After all, even a wise and educated counselor and writer was once ready to cut a hole in his refrigerator door to prove that the light goes out.

Click here to go to the Karl Popper Web


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