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Falsafiability of Podiatric science

Discussion in 'Biomechanics, Sports and Foot orthoses' started by David Smith, May 8, 2008.

  1. David Smith

    David Smith Well-Known Member

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    Dear all

    The question I want to ask has its genisis in this weeks publication of New Scientist. Some Swans are Grey P44. 10/ May / 08

    In 1934 Karl Popper wrote a book, which later in 1959 he translated from German into English. The book is titled The Logic of Scientific Discovery. This book has been described as one of the most important scientific books of the twentieth century.

    The esssence of this book is that science can be defined as the theory that is falsifiable. In other words it has the possibility of being proved wrong by experimetation. My understanding of the term 'falsifiable' is that, if a theory is able to be proved wrong therefore then there must be some method of observing the changes or effects proposed. Having the capacity to be proved wrong or falsified does not necessarily mean it will only that it has the possibility. So even if you do the experiment thousands of times and find it proved this still only proves it for the population that you have observed and there may be some as yet unobserved section of the entire population that can disprove the theory. So in this case after you have proved the theory many times the probability that is true is very high but never 100%.

    The classic case is the theory that because the as the single white swan observed is white then all white swans are white. Clearly this has very low probability. But if we observe all the swans that we can find, and we assume that this is the whole population, then the probaility that all swans are white is very high. It is still possible however that somewhere there is a black or non white swan somewhere in the world that will disprove the theory.

    So, in biomechanics there are almost always many confounding variables that make observation of cause and effect unreliable, assuming that mostly we want to attribute causation and not simply correlation to our work.

    We have to make reasonable assumptions about many parameters and can often only attribute correlation and not causation to an intervention that we use experimentally or clinically. Direct mechanical cause and effect may be confounded by many things such as placebo effect, phsycological factors, changes in CNS activity, observer error or bias (intentional or accidental) etc.

    In this case the theory may not be falsifiable because we have not a 100% reliable way of observing the cause and effect. So even if we falsify the theory we may have done so under a false premise or because of data confounding but unconnected variables.

    Can we always say then that our theories are 'falsifiable' and if not how much leeway are we allowed before we enter the realms of fiction and snake oil? Is there a definite line or is there a large grey area?

    Is the best that we can do is that we ensure our experimental methodology tests the theory in such a way that it has a high probability of being falsifiable?

    Robert Mathews of the New Scientist (Science reader at Aston Uiversity Birmingham UK ) writes quoting Lawrence Kruass " I have fallen into the trap of applying falsifiability criteria to decide whether something is worth publishing" ---- "I have decided not to write papers because I thought they (the theories) would never be falsifiable and yet they turned out to be so".

    Do we and should we employ such stringent protocols to our own work and claims or would this leave many avenues (though potentially useful) unexplored?

    Does this lead us back to snake oil country?

    All the best Dave
    Last edited: May 8, 2008
  2. David Smith

    David Smith Well-Known Member

    Maybe these quotes shed some light.

    "Theories are nets: only he who casts will catch." - Novalis

    "It is not given to science to reach either truth or falsity...but scientific statements can only attain continuous degrees of probability whose unattainable upper and lower limits are truth and falsity." - Reichenbach

  3. Dieter Fellner

    Dieter Fellner Well-Known Member


    This theme intersects with various others e.g. Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, Schroeder's cat, the arbitrary nature of quantum mechanics etc. The very act of experimentation / observation affects the outcome. It seems the harder it looks and the deeper science explores the more esoteric and uncertain the answers.

    It is, nonetheless, still better to look and fail, than not to look at all. Scientific methodology is not fail proof but it is the best means humanity has to get nearer to the truth.

    Perhaps though your post, and the point is well put, is a useful reminder, that professional posturing and dogmatic certainty is suffused with its own brand of folly ... the more I know, the clearer it is how little I know. I envy (a little maybe) those with an unerring sense of conviction in all they say and do, often pursued with a kind of religious fervour, an unshakable faith set in ego. The public media (newspapers, TV and yes, even scientif papers are all culpabale). Most recently yet again newsworthy Dr. Wakefield's triple vaccination fiasco.

    Every aspect of human undertaking has its own examples.

    In their wake, the preachers leave a trail of those scorned... it is said that as science and faith collide, at the centre of it you will find the true meaning of God.

    Me, I know nothing - now back to my Merlot.
  4. efuller

    efuller MVP

    Another important book is Thomas Kuhn's "The nature of scientific revolutions", where he describes paradigm shifts from one theory to the next. A great example is physics just before Einstien proposed the theory of relativity. Newton's laws were not working as speeds approached the speed of light. The theory of relativity replaced Newton's laws with modified equations that took into acount the speed of the objects involved. So at speeds that we experience in every day life Newton's laws still work and the relativity equations say they should still work.

    An important point in theorizing is looking at what we can rely on to work a high percentage of the time. Newton's Laws work. Chemistry works. We have a lot of physiology that we can predict and explain with pretty good accuracy.

    So, when we examine, or propose, a new theory, we should base this in what we already know. In medicine it is important to have the basic science background to be able to examine and critique old and new theories. For example, say it was found that patients felt better after standing on orthotics cast in neutral position as opposed to orthotics made from the weight bearing shape of the foot. Now, you have a corelation that you can evolve a theory around. Hopefully, the theory you choose will use knowledge that you already accept or is generally accepted.

    I was at a meeting (A side meeting of the 1st PFOLA in San Francisco) where Mert Root was speaking about this approach where you have to examine the basic sciences to be able to explain how orthotics work. Interestingly, in this meeting, as he listed the basic sciences he skipped physics. He may have included it at other times, but he did not at this meeting. Root's theories break down logically when you try to get deep into the physics of his explanations. Lever arms are not discussed. Joint axes are treated as real hinges rather than imaginary lines. Not all the forces acting on the foot are identified. (Ground reaction force is talked about in great detail, but when describing the foot you have to examine the force of gravity acting on the body from above at the same time you look at ground reaction force below the foot.) So, some theories you can shoot down before you get to the experimentation stage. Shooting down the theory to explain an observatoin does not shoot down the observation.

    David, I agree that it is really difficult to say that you truly know something. However, the alternative of questioning everything will leave you feeling quite lost. I believe that life is better when I believe in something.

    Newton rules,

  5. Adrian Misseri

    Adrian Misseri Active Member

    G'day David and all,

    One thing that I've found in my (albeit brief) carreer as a podiatrist, and with the research I've done and study I've conducted is how much of an infantile state we are with out understanding and evidence about the foot and its biomechanical function. The vast majority of what we quite often take as gospel in foot mechanics (especially as student and new graduates) is just theroy, based on what is unfortunately quite often poorly conducted and brief research. This is becasue we as a knowledge body are still trying to figure out our basics. As fundamental beliefs in foot structure become more concrete, better theories start to emerge, but sometimes, older ideas are demonstrated to be not as solid as previously thought. We live in exciting times in terms of foot mechanics, a renaissance if you will!

    This also draws into light the need of knowledge in our clinical settings. In todays litigious society, the need for evidence based practice is greater than ever. We need research and sound theoretical constructs, from good quality well constructed research, for evidence based paractice. The most fundamental, sound construscts we have for our practice are anatomy and physiology. these are so impornat in our clinical practice, and must be well taught in our universities and constantly re-enforced if we are to understand the theories that are emerging. We need to understand what is there so we can begin to understand how it is supposed to move and behave, so taht we cna treat it when it's not doing when it's supposed to. Anatomy we know, biomechanics we are learing.

  6. Mart

    Mart Well-Known Member

    Hi skeptics and true believers

    Nice reflective post . . . . . . . . . without wanting to sound too gushy I feel really pleased to part of this global interaction of minds without which I would feel professionally fairly barren.

    The previous posts resonate with me and if I detect some disquiet with the reality which presents itself I would say this:

    Consider how short a time pod arena has been in existence and how much it may have inspired or encouraged you to think more deeply about any of the subjects you have involved yourself and how much you may have engaged others. For me the wonder of evolution is that we can experience having arrived at this point.

    Although there is seemly a paradox in that the more we learn the more unknowledgeable we may feel (ego aside) this is only a problem if we feel that knowledge is finite and it seems likely to this is not true (personal experience . . . no references).

    If there is really a single truth, which philosophically some may regard as the goal of science to discover, once you let this truth do its stuff it may well have infinite effect – evolution seems to encourage this.

    As clichéd as it sounds “the journey is what makes life fun”, at least in the privileged lives which we on pod arena lead. So let’s continue to relish this, pod arena which for me is akin to a decent merlot at times is a welcome alternative to the home bru i would otherwise get stuck with.

    Enough unsubstantiated indulgence . . .. . . .Back to playing my banjo


    The St. James Foot Clinic
    1749 Portage Ave.
    R3J 0E6
    Phone [204] 837 FOOT (3668)
    Fax [204] 774 9918
  7. David Smith

    David Smith Well-Known Member

    Hi all

    I like the following quotes from your replies.

    Dieter wrote
    and Martin wrote
    And, in my case at least, feel a little fraudulent IE I am doing my best but I know I could do better if I knew more. On the other hand imagining that we know it all may be vaingloriously comforting but will lead to complacency and stagnation. Ah! Complacency - it's a nice place for a holiday but I wouldn't want to live there

    Adrian wrote
    So who are the Michelangelo's and Leonardo Di Vinci's of modern podiatric Biomechanics? I'm no history buff but didnt the renaisance bring rebirth of both Science and Art - Art and Anatomy, Architecture and Maths, Mechanics and Anatomy and Art - and Archtecture and Maths. Maths as an art - is that too unimagiable.
    At that time the two (art and science) grew together and appeared to be synonymous and synergistic. Yet often today they are arbitrarily and perhaps unjustly, seperated by a chasm of prejudice.

    Eric wrote
    Don't great discovories come from the imagined possibilities? Is it possible to imagine something that does not have it's roots in established references?
    Sometimes one can feel something is right even without real proof and possibly without the possibility of falsibility.

    My question is even tho these leaps of logic are sometimes fruitful are they scientific. How can we encompass the art of creativity into the world of science without loosing the principles of science. So therefore when do our experiments, that may be based on creativity and science, become fantasy? How far away from our refrence points is too far?

    When reading statistics, statisticians have said that to apply statistical analysis to science especially medical science can be meaningless and even absurd. They explained that the initial theory or premise was not valid, I found this difficult to understand why. Now perhaps I can see that if the theory was not falsifiable then all the statistical analysis in the world, of the experimental results, will essentially be non-sensical. How can you test the probability of the null hypothesis if there was never a chance that it could be falsified.

    So in terms of a scale (probability) in the range of true and false then without the possibility of falsity we cannot have the possibility of truth. So unless we propose out theories thoughtfully and our experimental methods correctly and precisely we cannot have probability and therefore statistical analysis is absurd and snake oil is as good as science (+art ??:dizzy:).

    And yet
    Can we say then that critisism is a very useful tool for scientific progress since it moderates our uncontrolled enthusiasm and vain ego's and steers our ships away from the rocky shores of fantasy and complacency.

    Scientific Criticism By and For the Scientifically Untrained http://www.uow.edu.au/arts/sts/bmartin/dissent/documents/McLean.html

    Quotes Thomas Huxely as saying

    "The great tragedy of science – a beautiful hypothesis slain by an ugly fact."

    and also Max Plank

    "A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it."

    and proposes

    Rule 1. It's OK to be wrong.

    Rule 2. Most scientists don't believe Rule 1.

    also remarks about Poppers falsibility claim

    and goes onto say

    "This means that the only way science can truly advance is by seeking flaws in its hypotheses. Anyone who can demonstrate such a flaw, anyone who can produce a fact or piece of evidence, which cannot be explained by an existing hypothesis, should be welcomed. Why, then, are such facts regarded as ugly?"

    Does this mean then that as scientists we should embrace imperfection and flaws since without it we cannot advance our knowledge.

    This would seem to be true in a tautalogical way since if knowledge is infinite (as Martin inferred) then we must be imperfect in our knowledge at all times.

    In which case if imperfection advances our knowlegde then greater imperfection makes us capable of greater knowledge. Therefore snake oil may be just what the Professor ordered but critisism is the antedote.

    Should we then embrace snake oil since it defines the boundaries our scientific knowledge but at the same time enables our imaginations.

    Cheers Dave:drinks
    Last edited: May 9, 2008
  8. David:

    As far as quotes go regarding scientific theory, here is the one that has been hanging on the wall of my office for the past 23 years that has often given me great comfort.

  9. Admin2

    Admin2 Administrator Staff Member


    "All swans are white" can be proven false and is hence a falsifiable statement, since evidence of black swans proves it to be false, and such evidence can be provided. (Were the statement true, however, it would be hard to prove true.)

    A statement, hypothesis, or theory has falsifiability or refutability if there is the possibility of showing it to be false. It is falsifiable if it is possible to conceive an empirical observation or a logical argument which could refute it.

    For example, the universal generalization that All swans are white is falsifiable since it is logically possible to falsify it by observing a single swan that is not white. Some statements, such as It will be raining here in one million years, are falsifiable in principle, but not in practice.[1]

    The concern with falsifiability gained attention by way of philosopher of science Karl Popper's scientific epistemology referred to as "falsificationism". Popper stresses the problem of demarcation—distinguishing the scientific from the unscientific—and makes falsifiability the demarcation criterion, such that what is unfalsifiable is classified as unscientific, and the practice of declaring an unfalsifiable theory to be scientifically true is pseudoscience.

    1. ^ Popper, K. R. (1994). "Zwei Bedeutungen von Falsifizierbarkeit [Two meanings of falsifiability]". In Seiffert, H.; Radnitzky, G. Handlexikon der Wissenschaftstheorie (in German). München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag. pp. 82–85. ISBN 3-423-04586-8. 
  10. I agree with Eric that Thomas Kuhn really provides the best, most thorough explanation of how scientific theory has developed, matured and then changed over our civilization's recorded history. If you haven't read the book, you should.

    In addition, the term "falsifiability" is not a word I was familiar with but I am well aware of the word "testability" which was grilled into me during my undergraduate years as an Animal Physiology major at UC Davis. Thanks for that, Admin2.

    A hypothesis must be testable or the proposition of any hypothesis is of little use for us since the hypothesis may not be able to be experimentally supported or refuted. That does not mean that a hypothesis or theory must be able to be supported or refuted in today's world with today's technology. Often theories are proposed during times when the technology is not available to test the theory, whereas the theory may be able to be tested 1 - 100 years later, for example.

    Such was the case of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity of 1915 that predicted that the path of light rays would be bent by the gravitational acceleration of massive objects, such as the sun, a certain angular quantity. However, it was not until four years later, in 1919 that the bending of rays of light from stars behind a solar eclipse in South America and West Africa was observed that Einstein's theory and predictions were supported by experimental observation. This made Einstein a worldwide celebrity for offering a testable theory that accurately predicted a scientific phenomenon that could not be tested and supported by experimental observation for four years.

    Good theory stands the test of time and will eventually be supported by multiple observers. Bad theory is often talked about and lectured on as fact by a few people only to be eventually replaced by better theory as experimental observations eventually gather that refute the tenets of the bad theory. Such is the nature of the world of science. Only the strong theories survive, the weak theories eventually become only relics of history.
  11. Adrian Misseri

    Adrian Misseri Active Member

    I have a little picture in my study area of a old man, posibly homeless, sitting, reading the newspapaer with the caption 'Keep Learning'. How many a good central victorian shiraz has been toasted to that fellow and his message as I've poured my way through research and papers, trying to make sence of what is and what isn't!

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