Thursday, 22 August 2013

Conjectures and Refutations

Karl Popper taught David Miller who taught John Collins who taught me. It's like Papal succession. So I'm sure Karl would have been pleased to hear how I recently applied the Principle of Falsification to an area of frustration in my own life.

The Principle of Falsification is a much misunderstood solution to the Problem of Induction. So we're going to need some background here but, please, bear with me, I promise I'll be brief.

The problem of Induction asks, 'how the hell can we know anything for certain?' and everybody since David Hume, who first articulated the problem, has basically come to the conclusion that we can't. Popper, too, is in the 'we can't' camp but he points out that what we can do is rule things out.

Regular readers of this space will know that Charlie, Spike and I recently moved into a new flat. It was not long before we noticed a melancholic melody emanating from the back wall of the kitchen. A sort of high pitched 'brrng whrrrlllrrrng brrrng' Spike didn't seem too bothered by it, but it was seriously annoying the human occupants. What the hell kind of weird music were the neighbours listening to? It was a musical sound but it wasn't music. There was no way that anybody would listen to that noise for pleasure. So, like good Popperians, we abandoned our initial conjecture and decided that it must be the neighbours' kids playing some repetitive computer game. However the noise continued at intervals all through the night. So that seemed unlikely too.

A few days passed and the noise started to invade our every waking moment, it was cyclical and would increase in volume and then suddenly stop. But even when unheard we found ourselves listening for it. Can you hear it, yet? Even Spike, who is usually the most laid back, was starting to feel agitated.

Sometimes you don't know where a hypothesis comes from. Hypothesis creation is the imaginative part of science that doesn't get the credit that is heaped on the logical part. However, suddenly it came to me, the noise wasn't from the neighbours at all. Our new freezer was singing to us. We had a singing freezer. 

When I first mentioned this idea, it was met with some scepticism. But I was taught by a man who was taught by a man who was taught by Karl Popper, so I know how to react when confronted by a sceptical girlfriend and cactus. 'What would Popper do in this instance?' I asked myself. 'He would try his best to refute his conjecture,' I answered myself.

I waited until the sound was in crescendo then reached for the switch and turned the freezer off. If the sound continued then, by the principle of falsification, I would have to abandon my singing freezer hypothesis. If the sound stopped then my theory was corroborated (but crucially not proven.)

The sound stopped. The freezer's 'on' cycle was causing the pipes at the back to vibrate and that in turn seemed to create a feedback loop which caused the sound to increase in intensity until the freezer went into its 'off' cycle (or I pulled the plug).

Now we've filled it up a bit, it doesn't seem so bad, I think the empty box was acting as an amplifier as well.

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