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APPLYING POPPER TO

SOCIAL REALITIES:
Practical Solutions to
TYRRELL BURGESS*

Practical

Problems

MONG THE MOST OBVIOUS of intellectual developments in the last few


decades has been the expansion of the social sciences. The number
of departments of economics, sociology, social and public administration
have multipled in institutions of higher education. The number of students in degree courses in these fields has grown astonishingly. At the same
time governments and other public authorities, international agencies, and
even commercial enterprises, have taken to commissioning quantities of
social science research. The results of all this activity have been disappointing. Students have been disillusioned by the courses, governments and other
agencies by the return on expenditure. The social sciences, which seem
to ofTer the possibility of solutions to intractable social problems, appear
instead to be remote, academic, and inconsequential.
There are innumerable examples of the social sciences failure. Let us begin
with the desire to improve the outcomes of education. Many children do
not learn to read at school and it is widely recognized that individual happiness and social peace may require a remedy for this deficiency. Unhappily
the instinct of most social scientists is to fmd out yet more about the children, their social circumstances, family background, standard of accommodation, and so on. We thus know innumerable facts with which the
inability to read can be said to be associated. There is an industry devoted
to this sort of investigation: social class, family size, home circumstances,
race, and much else are included in what I may be forgiven for calling
multiple digression analyses-all in order to extend what we know about
Tyrrell Burgess is Reader in the Philosophy of Social Institutions at Northeast London
Polytechnic (London, England).
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children who cannot read. Very little of this is concerned with the question
of how children are to learn to read. The knowledge from these investigations may or may not help: if it does, it will be a lucky chance. These
investigations are not specially designed to ofFer practical help.
I would suggest that the way to solve the practical problem of teaching
children to read, whatever their circumstances, is to try a number of reading
methods until we fmd one that works. The kind of knowledge that is required for this is quite different from the kind of knowledge which is sought
by those who use the problem as an occasion for research. The usual outcome ofthe kind of investigation that I have just described is the assertion
by sociologists that improvement in reading is impossible until all the other
associated factors are mitigated-that we cannot change anything unless
we change everything.
Here is an example taken from David Donnison, then Director of the
Centre for Environmental Studies, introducing the longitudinal study of
child development undertaken by the National Children's Bureau. (1) Professor Donnison writes:
Living conditions for families with young children probably vary more
greatly-inequalities are sharper-than for any other type of household. Many
children live in the newest and leafiest suburbs within easy reach of well paid
jobs in expanding industries, new schools and shops, extensive parks, and
all the advantages of urban and rural life. But many others live in overcrowded
quarters where people are constantly on the move, social organisation is weak,
unemployment is rife, schools are old and under-staffed, and there is no open
space or legitimate playground.
Such patterns are the outcome of a long history of economic and social
development, reinforced or modified by the policies followed by central and
local authorities for family allowances, employment, housing, transport, and
land uses. Too often they are re-emphasised rather than corrected by the
deployment of educational resources. There is no time to be lost in setting
about the task of changing them.
Professor Donnison concludes:
How much do children learn? How far behind the others do the weaker
performers fall? . . . What can we do to improve the situation?
The patterns glimpsed in the National Child Development Study are so
deeply embedded in this country's economic and social structure that they
cannot be greatly changed by anything short of equally far-reaching changes
in that structure.
Professor Donnison is explicit that the performance ofthe weaker learners
cannot be greatly changed unless we change the country's economic and
social structure. Professor Donnison is a well-meaning man, but his mistaken
view of social science leads him to write absurdities and greatly demoralizes
those who might help children to learn.

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To take a further example, I have been present at a meeting to discuss


the improvement in the attractiveness of a school to local parents, to which
the education officer's contribution was, "The school is unattractive because
the pupils are mostly black and the buildings are old, and we cannot do
anything about either of these." The knowledge here had all the fmality
of a solution when it should have been part of the formulation of a real
problem for which a solution was to be sought. Explanation has become
a substitute for action.
Another set of misunderstandings which bedevil the contribution of the
social sciences is that which surroimds quantitative work. A common mistake
is to confuse statistical significance with significance. A British example
of this which has had far-reaching consequences is the formula for distributing central government support to local authorities. Part of this has
been called a "needs" element, arrived at by running a multiple regression
analysis on a number of factors held to represent need and weighting the
distribution according to the relative statistical significance of the factors.
The object of this is to produce a satisfactory distribution based upon "objective" criteria. Yet the consequence is to produce a distribution which
varies unacceptably from year to year (calling for additional modifying formulae) and which bears little relation to the actual needs of any individual
local authority. (2)
Finally, yet another ground for confusion derives from the uneasiness
with which the social sciences accommodate philosophical questions, in
particular questions of value. The place of value judgments is a matter
for debate in both sociology and economics. It takes the form, in economics,
of a discussion about positive and normative statements. As Harry Johnson
put it, positive economics is concerned with how the economy works and
nonnative with how it should be made to work to maximize social welfare. (3)
In his widely used undergraduate textbook, Lipsey (4) argues that arguments
about positive statements can be settled by an appeal to the facts whereas
normative statements depend upon value judgments and disagreements
about them cannot be settled in this way. By way of example he suggests
that the questions "What government policies will reduce unemployment?"
and "What policies will prevent inflation?" are positive ones; whereas the
question "Ought we to be more concerned about employment than about
inflation?" is a normative one. Lipsey immediately recognizes that the
distinction may break down, and in a half-page footnote he suggests how
normative statements may depend upon or lead to positive ones-for example, "Unemployment is worse than inflation because the (measurable) effects of unemployment on human beings are judged by the majority of
adult citizens to be . . . more serious than the (measurable) effects of inflation." This has now become such a mixture of positive and normative
statements as to be merely confusing.
There can be many other examples of ways in which the developing social

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sciences bewilder and mislead professionals and public alike. I do not believe,
however, that this is inevitable. The bewilderment stems from mistaken
theory and practice, and both can be corrected.
II
The best hope of corrertion lies through developing the work of Karl Popper.
His epistemology, developed initially in relation to the physical sciences, (5)
is equally promising in the social sciences. (6) In particular his advocacy
of "piecemeal social engineering," his plea to "minimize misery," and his
understanding of the importance of institutions together offer a basis for
the harnessing of social science for social improvement. Unfortunately these
insights have been largely neglected. This is partly because his ideas are
scattered throughout what is now a very large volume of work.
Popper's most convenient short account of his view of the social sciences
is set out in a relatively recent symposium, (7) summarized as an appendix
to the present paper (Popper's "twenty-seven theses" on the logic of the
social sciences).
Popper's main thesis is one which he summarizes elsewhere in the schema
Pi^TT->EE->P2: scientific discussions start with a problem (Pi) to
which we offer a tentative solution, or theory (TT); this theory is then
criticized to eliminate error (EE); the theory and its critical revision lead
to new problems (P2). It seems to me a more fruitful explanation than
others of how knowledge advances, and in particular it avoids the problem
of the logical impossibility of induction. It is important to realize, however,
that it is a logical explanation, not a psychological one. It does not imply
a belief that that is what all individual scientists consciously do. Indeed
it accommodates the immense variety of practices of individual scientists,
including the random, accidental, and creative insights which are indispensable to human progress. Such strokes of genius can be readily dealt with
and made more fruitful if they are regarded as solutions to problems (TT).
There is indeed an implied lesson to be learned from Popper's schema,
though so far as I know he himself has not made this explicit. It is that
knowledge will be more quickly advanced if scientists are aware of the logic
of the process and if their practice is in tune with it. In particular it suggests
that as much care must be taken in formulating problems as in searching
for solutions, and that solutions must be capable of being tested. All three
steps require creative insight.
I believe that it is in the first step-the initial formulation of problemsthat the social sciences are at their weakest, and that this weakness is responsible for the social sciences' continuing ineffectiveness. Although Popper's
twenty-seven theses represent the strongest statement about what the social
sciences could be, the theses themselves contain echoes of this weakness
which diminish the force of Popper's concluding suggestion for the theses'

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further development (see Popper's "suggestion" at the end of the appendix


to the present paper).
From the fourth thesis it is clear that in discussing the social sciences
Popper is concerned with knowledge and with the theory of knowledge.
He argues that so far as one can say that knowledge starts from something,
one can say that it starts, not from observations, perceptions, or the collection of data or facts, but from problems. It starts from the tension between
knowledge and ignorance and thus meets the demand built up in the first
three theses: no problems without knowledge; no knowledge without problems; no problems without ignorance. Each problem arises from the discovery that something is not in order with our supposed knowledge: that
there is an apparent contradiciton between our supposed knowledge and
the supposed facts. The problems from which knowledge starts are those
which arise when what we think we know does not fit with what we underftand to be the facts.
This is made explicit in the fifth thesis, in which Popper asserts that
in the social sciences, as in all sciences, success, interest, and fruitfulness
depend on the significance of the problems and the honesty and simplicity with which we tackle them. In this, he continues, we are not confined
to theoretical problems: "Serious practical problems, such as the problems
of poverty, of illiteracy, of political suppression, or of uncertain legal rights
were important starting points for research in the social sciences."
This thesis thus allows that the problems of social science may be practical
ones: it cites some practical problems that are indeed "serious." Yet in this
formulation, these serious practical problems serve simply as the starting
point for research and thus presumably to the extension of knowledge. As
Popper says, they "led to speculation, to theorizing, and thus to theoretical
problems." Practical problems are viewed, in other words, as a spur to the
search for truth rather than to practical improvement.

in
I find this unsatisfactory. This is partly because serious practical problems demand better of us, and partly because the formulation glosses over
a crucial problem for the social sciences, that is the relationship between
knowledge and pratice. I do not think that Popper himself has ever explicitly worked out quite what this relationship should be. He is not, of course,
uninterested in practical matters. On the contrary, his plea to minimize
misery is as passionate as "ecrase rinfame"-and his concept of piecemeal
social engineering is the world's best hope of achieving it. But he himself
has confessed that he has not followed this through.
In the hands of most social scientists, however, the flaw in Popper's fifth
thesis becomes extremely damaging. It leads to the relegation of serious
problems to the status of mere occasions for research. It relieves the research
itself from the discipline of relevance. It encourages the endless elabora-

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tion of detail and the "replication" of research findings. It also leaas to


"Utopian solutions" of the worst kind, like the one suggested by David
Donnison quoted earlier.
I fear that an unintended consequence of the fifth thesis will be to
strengthen these tendencies in the social sciences. What we need instead
is a way of seeking social knowledge explicitly as part of a solution to social
problems. The knowledge that we seek in these circumstances will be quite
different from that which is sought in pure research.
This distinction is obscured in the fifth thesis. And it is not clear what
is the status of the problems which are described as practical. It is surely
not the same as that of the problems mentioned in the fourth thesiswhich arise from an apparent contradiction between our supposed
knowledge and the supposed facts. The problem of poverty is not a problem of knowledge or a problem of fact. Of course, we need to know how
much poverty there is-and there may be more or less than we think. We
no doubt need to know the incidence of poverty and the nature of its consequences. But this is not what we mean by the problem of poverty. Poverty
itself is not a problem. It becomes a problem only if we accept or decide
that something must be done about it: the problem of how to get from
more poverty to less.
(This is somewhat clarified in the fourteenth thesis. Here Popper distinguishes between the question of the truth of an assertion-of its relevance,
interest, and significance to the problems of knowledge which we investigate-and the question of an assertion's relevance, interest, and significance
for extra-scientific problems. Examples of these latter problems are those
of human welfare or national defense, of an aggressive nationalist policy,
industrial expansion, or the acquisition of personal wealth. Popper says
that such extra-scientific interests cannot be eliminated or prevented from
affecting the course of scientific research-in the natural as in the social
sciences. But he believes that it is possible, important, and peculiar to science
to differentiate between these interests "which do not belong to the search
for truth" and the "purely scientific interest in the truth." The problem
of poverty is of extra-scientific interest. Popper himself gives the problem
of human welfare as an example of such an interest, so I think we may
be justified in assuming that Popper would regard the problem of poverty
in the same light-when we want to do something about it and it becomes
an issue of public policy [just like Popper's other examples of national
defense and industrial expansion].)
IV
In the light of this discussion, I propose an addition to Popper's twentyseven theses which will help to clarify the relationship between questions
of truth and issues of public policy. My suggestion emphasizes the importance of care in the formulation of problems and of restraint in proposed

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solutions. My addition to Popper's theses might perhaps be numbered 14a


and it would go something like this:
14a. There are different kinds of problems which demand different kinds
of solutions and different kinds of tests. One can distinguish, for example, scientific, engineering, formal and philosophical problems. The
logic of the process (Popper's Pi->TS->EE-*P2 spelled out in the
sixth thesis) remains the same whatever the kind of problem.
Let me elaborate. In Popper's formulation of the logic of discovery he
uses, interchangeably and often all together, a number of words for the
second term of his schema (above): theory, solution, hypothesis, conjecture. I presume that this practice derives from his impatience with discussions of meaning which he regards as trivial. He does not wish understanding to be limited by definitions. What is more, a part of what he is
arguing is that theories are solutions to problems, and solutions, even to
practical problems, are theories. But I find that it is useful to carry these
different ideas into the first term of the schema and distinguish different
kinds of problems.
The first consists of problems of what is the case, and why: we may call
these scientific problems. Their nature is well illustrated in the twentyseven theses. Problems arise when facts contradict our expectations. Tentative theories enlarge our understanding of what is the case. As Popper says,
this applies in the social sciences as in all sciences.
The problems which I call engineering problems are different. They arise
not from difficulties about what is the case, but from the need to get from
one state of affairs to another-to use the illustrations of one engineer, to
get from one side of a river to another, from bread to toast. Examples from
"social engineering" include the need (desire, policy) to change people's
circumstances from poverty to a modest competence or to make illiterate
children literate. As I said earlier, the "problem of poverty" arises when
we propose to do something about it.
Formal problems are different again: they arise in closed systems, like
mathematics or chess, and do not necessarily relate to reality at all.
The fourth group of problems, which I have called philosophical, are
not so clearly described as the other three. One is tempted to assert that
they include all these problems which cannot be elsewhere classified, and
these include problems of method, policy, value, ethics which may arise
out of the other problems which we tackle or, in their turn, give rise to
them. This present discussion of different kinds of problems is itself an
attempted solution to a problem in the philosophy of social science.
The examples given at the beginning of this paper, of confusion and
stultification in the social sciences, arise from a failure to be clear about
the kind of problems being tackled, in particular a confusion of scientific
and engineering problems. It is a confusion of two traditions of learning.

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which I have elsewhere characterized as the "autonomous" and the "service" traditions. (8)Those who work in the autonomous tradition speak of
the "preservation," "extension," and "dissemination" of knowledge, often
"for its own sake." They speak of pursuing the truth wherever it may lead,
regardless of the consequences. In its extreme version, as advanced for example by George Steiner, (9) it would place the pursuit of truth above the
existence of the human race. The service tradition starts from a different
place. Its activity is not self-justifying but explained and defended in terms
outside the pursuit of knowledge, usually in terms of a change that might
be accomplished in an individual or in society. Both these traditions are
of enormous value, and both ought to be protected. It is of paramount
importance, too, that they be distinguished, and that we should always be
clear, in any particular enquiry, which of them forms the basis for our work.
Teaching children to read is not a matter of pursuing the truth about
children, it is a matter of trying a number of reading methods. It is an
engineering, not a scientific problem.
We can similarly understand the nature of the difficulty about statistical
significance by recognizing that it is a matter of imagining that the solution to a formal problem is apt for a practical problem. The Greeks illustrated the confusion very well with their famous problem of Achilles and
the tortoise. Achilles ran twice as fast as the tortoise, so the tortoise had
a mile start; when Achilles had covered the mile, the tortoise had gone half
a mile; when Achilles had done that half mile, the tortoise had done a quarter
of a mile. . ., and so on, Achilles never passed the tortoise. There is nothing
wrong with the mathematics; it just has nothing to do with reality. A similar
misunderstanding lies at the heart of much of the quantitative work in the
social sciences.
Similarly, in the economic example given earlier, the distinction between
positive and normative statements in the social sciences is unhelpful. What
we have instead are different kinds of problems. There are scientific problems like "What is the incidence of unemployment and how does it arise?"
and there are problems of social engineering like "How do we get from
more imemployment to less?" There is nothing "normative" about the second
question: it is a matter of choosing a solution and testing whether or not
it is effective, in other words by an appeal to the facts. Similarly the question of whether unemployment is worse than inflation is clarified by identifying what problem (of social engineering) one is concerned to solve. If
our problem is to get from more human misery to less, we should test (by
reference to the facts) which of a number of policies (including reducing
unemployment or curbing inflation) are most apt. The determination to
reduce human misery itself may rest upon a value judgment. It may be
that a value judgment determines which of our infinity of possible problems we determine to tackle. But in this respect problems of (social) engineering are no different from problems of (social) science. What is more, our

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determination may not depend upon a value judgment at all but upon the
testable theory that a reduction in human misery will lead to the Government's re-election.
It is in this context-in the recognition that we have different kinds of
problems-that Popper's statements about values are of such importance.
Whether our problems are those of science or of engineering we must distinguish between scientific and extra-scientific values. In this there is no
distinction between "what is" and "what is to be done." The question of
whether we ought to do this or that remains for scientists as well as for
engineers. Both are under an equal obligation to be clear about such value
questions and about their answers to them. But in each case it is possible
to bring one's values into the realm of rational discussion by recasting them
in the form of problems which are amenable to testable solutions. It is in
this way that social science and social engineering can be advanced.
This brings us to Popper's "suggestion" that the fundamental problems
of a purely theoretical social science are the situational logic of and theory
of institutions and traditions. The task of this theoretical social science,
as Popper puts it elsewhere, (10) is "to try to anticipate the unintended
consequences of our actions."
The task of social engineering is different. It is to devise solutions to
social problems and to test these solutions. Indeed it may have to reformulate social problems so that solutions are possible. And the solutions will
always be institutions which are testable for their aptness and success.
The relationship between the two is like that between physical science
and engineering. Engineering problems may be solved with or without
the aid of theory. The engineer cannot fly in the face of the physical facts,
though he may propose ways of overcoming them. A developed social science
may not only improve understanding but also give grounds for a social
engineering that in tackling our urgent problems may be fruitful, apt, and
free from harm.

NOTES AND REFERENCES


L Ronald Davie, Neville Butler, and Harvey Goldstein, Prom Birth to Seven, a report
of the National Child Development Study (Longman in association with the National Children's Bureau, 1972).
2. See Tyrrell Burgess and Tony Travers, Ten Billion Pounds: Whitehall's Takeover of the
Town Halls (Grant Mclntyre, 1980).
3. Harry Johnson, The Economic Approach to Social Questions, an inaugural lecture
delivered October 12, 1967 at the London School of Economics (Weiderfeld and
Nicolson, 1968).
4. Richard G. Lipsey, Positive Economics, founh edition (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975).
5. See especially K.R. Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (Hutchinson, 1959).
6. See especially K.R. Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, fifth edition (Routledge
and Kegan Paul, 1966).

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7. K.R. Popper, "The Logic of the Social Sciences," in Theodor W. Adorno et al,
The Positivist Dispute in German Sociology, Glyn Adey and David Frisby, eds.
(Heinemann, 1976).
8. Tyrrell Burgess, Education After School (Gollancz and Penguin, 1977).
9. George Steiner, "Has Truth a Future?," The Listener, January 12, 1978.
10. K.R. Popper, "Reason or Revolution," in Adorno, op.cit.

Appendix
Popper's "The Logic of the Social Sciences"
The "twenty seven theses" in which Popper sets out the logic ofthe social
sciences can be baldly summarized as follows (thesis numbers in brackets).
We know a great deal, yet our ignorance is boundless: with each problem
we solve we discover new problems and undermine previous certainties [1,2].
The logic of knowledge must accommodate this tension between knowledge
and ignorance [3]. Knowledge starts from problems, and our achievement
in advancing knowledge is proportionate to the significance ofthe problems
we tackle [4,5].
The main thesis is that the method of social science consists in trying tentative solutions to problems: these solutions are proposed and criticized, and
criticism consists of attempts at refutation. If the solution is refuted we
try again; if it survives we accept it temporarily, as worthy of being criticized. This is a consciously critical development of the process of "trial
and error." The objectivity of science lies in the objectivity of critical
method. [6]
The tension between knowledge and ignorance leads to problems and
tentative solutions, a thesis which contrasts strongly with the "misguided
naturalism" of induction [7]. The recent preeminence of anthropology, an
alleged descriptive, objective science, over theoretical sociology is a victory for misguided naturalism. Even though a "subject" is simply an artificially demarcated conglomerate of problems and solutions, the continuing
victory of anthropology, of misguided naturalism, woiild be a disaster. There
is no such thing as a purely observational science: there are only sciences
in which we theorize [8-10,21].
The objectivity of a science does not depend on the objectivity of the
scientist, but upon a critical tradition: not on individuals but on the social
results of mutual criticism. Objectivity is to be expressed in terms of social
ideas, like competition between individuals and "schools," tradition (especially the critical tradition), social institutions like publishers, and the power
ofthe state in tolerating debate [11-13].
In critical discussion we can distinguish the question ofthe truth of an
assertion, its relevance, interest, and significance to problems of interest;
and the question of its relevance, interest, and significance for various extrascientific problems [14].

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The most important function of purely deductive logic is that of an instrument of criticism. Deductive logic is the theory of the transmission
of truth from the premises to the conclusion, and it is also the theory of
the retransmission of falsity from the conclusion to at least one of the
premises. It is the theory of rational criticism, and deductive systemsthat is, what we work with in the sciences. The concept of truth is indispensable for this approach [15-20].
Sociology is autonomous in that it can and must make itself independent of psychology (which itself is a socal science) and in that we cannot
reduce the sociology of understanding to psychology [22-24].
There is a purely objective method in the social sciences, the method
of objective understanding or situational logic. The explanations of situational logic are rational, theoretical constructions and, in their oversimplification, are false-but with considerable truth content. Situational
logic assumed a physical world in which we act, including a social world
and social institutions [25-27].
These theses lead to a "suggestion" for the social sciences. This is:
We may, perhaps, accept provisionally, as the fundamental problems of a
purely theoretical sociology, the general situational logic of and the theory of
institutions and traditions. This would include such problems as the following:
1. Institutions do not act; rather, only individuals act, in or for or through
institutions. The general situations logic of these actions will be the theory
of the quasi-actions of institutions.
2. We might construct a theory of intended or unintended institutional consequences of purposive action. This could also lead to a theory ofthe creation and development of institutions.