Falsifiability: a question for the critics

Here’s something I’ve been thinking about which is probably better suited to some of my critics like Pharyngula and Orac. And I’m not attempting to lay some sort of ambush or anything, I’m merely considering a question that revolves around something that is generally of far more interest to them than to me.

The first question is: What is the best definition of science? To me, the OED definition is: “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment. — ORIGIN Latin scientia, from scire ‘know’.”

This seems perfectly workable to me, but I’ve noticed that people often bring up a second definition revolving around the concept of falsifiability. But can Popper’s concept of falsifiability really be taken very seriously as a dividing point between science and not-science? It seems somewhat flawed to me. Let me begin with postulating that while the language of the gods is not proper science, whereas the color of swans is.

The classic example of a falsifiable proposition is “all swans are white”. The fact that one could prove this proposition to be wrong by observing a black swan therefore makes it falsifiable and therefore a matter of science.

However, is not the proposition “all gods speak Aramaic” equally falsifiable, given that the theoretical observation of a Greek-speaking god would falsify the proposition and therefore make divine linguistics a legitimate matter of science?

The obvious response is to say, “well, we can’t observe gods”, but the same inability to observe was also true of any number of things for which we today have instruments capable of performing observations. For example, stating “all light from 7.5 x 1014 – 3 x 1017 Hz is purple” would have been an equally non-falsifiable proposition and therefore not science prior to Man’s ability to detect and measure ultraviolet.

So, it would seem to me that either one would have to admit that such things were not properly considered to be scientific matters until the point at which observation became possible, or that divine linguistics actually is a legitimate field of science.

Now, Popper presumably would describe this as “naive falsification” and put swans in the category approved by sophisticated methodological falsification and divine linguistics in the one not approved by it. But by this point, falsifiability has become a fairly haphazard definition which verges on tautology, defining science as whatever scientists believe science to be at the moment.

Anyhow, I have to assume I’m missing something here in this particular contemplation of the wheel, so I’d welcome any comments correcting my thinking here or, better yet, a more precise and universally acceptable definition of science.

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