In recent months I have come into increasing intellectual conflict with a number of Popperians—people who embrace Karl Popper's philosophy of science and, worse, his politics—and now seek to identify some of the issues from my point of view. This is a difficult task for me, as I have actually written a couple of posts here (not as many as I had originally intended) while self-identifying as a Popperian. At this point I must reject that label in favor of considering myself a critical rationalist who largely accepts Austrian economics, especially as espoused by Ludwig von Mises. This acceptance rests on the idea that some truths really are self-evident, including truths that Sir Karl himself uttered, like "All things living are in search of a better world," a statement that may be considered a broadening generalization to all organisms of Mises's definition/axiom of human action.
Note that the following observations do not apply to all Popperians and that not every Popperian exhibits all of the negative characteristics that I identify. Popperians are individuals and must be treated as such, usually being a mix of error and truth as are the rest of us.
A Different Flavor of Positivist
Popper rejected the idea that he was just a different flavor of positivist—a falsificationist rather than a verificationist. However, Popperians generally fall into this category, ignoring Popper's writings on metaphysical research programs, which, while subject to criticism, could not be falsified.
Although Popper wrote almost exclusively about metaphysics and its application to real world problems, Popperians tend to see everything as empirical. The one self-evident truth that Popperians seem to accept is that there are no self-evident truths—in spite of the requirement that theories be internally consistent.
Critics Rather than Problem Solvers
Popperians seem to be heavy on criticism and light on problem solving. They tend to attack, criticize, dismiss, and mock tentative theories while rarely attempting to generate new helpful conjectures themselves. This behavior is evident in their constant efforts to discredit Austrian school economics while failing to offer an alternative. They declare it to be unfalsifiable and, therefore, unscientific, ignoring the fact that many positivist economists have tried and failed to produce any universal statements that may be tested.
This problem is actually addressed by Popper when he writes in the preface to The Poverty of Historicism (p xi):
I think that it is convincing in itself: if there is such a thing as growing human knowledge, the we cannot anticipate to-day what we shall know only tomorrow...
This argument, being purely logical, applies to scientific predictors of any complexity, including 'societies' of interacting predictors. But this means that no society ca predict, scientifically, it own future states of knowledge. [emphasis in original]
Therefore, from economic theory we can expect explanation, but not prediction. And without prediction we have criticism, but not empirical falsification.
Popper as a God
Many Popperians see Popper as Revealer of Truth who should guide us in all respects, and that the world may be saved through recognition of these truths. I think this is fallacious, as he is a revealer of a number of truths that actually do guide us. In other words, he explains the process by which knowledge—in his terms, objective knowledge—is produced through the process of problem solving by conjecture and refutation. It is true that the knowledge of this process may improve our capabilities in applying it, but if Popper is right, it is the process we—and all living things—have been using all along. I hasten to point out that these truths are metaphysical—they are not subject to empirical refutation and are, therefore, not science. They are, of course, subject to criticism and are still the subject of controversy to this day.
Treating Popper as a god makes those who criticize Popper or advocate approaches that seem to contradict his, heretics or worse; and by implication, wrong. For example, Mises's epistemology has been the subject of many papers and criticisms, primarily on the basis of empiricism. His claim that economic theory is a priori and cannot be falsified by empirical data is attacked by mainstream economists and Popperians alike, although economists like Hutchison simply bewail the lack of empirical tests of universal statements in economic theory while offering no alternative.
Failure to Apply Principals Popper Himself Advocated
Popperians tend to ignore Popper's rationality principal and situational analysis in engaging in argument. For example, they are quick to take Mises's suggestion that to rule his works as non-science, as a Popperian generally would, is a "verbal quibble," as evidence that Mises is simply ignorant of Popper's work or stupid. They do not recognize Mises's lifelong battle against the positivists in which an identification of his economic work as non-science would have meant its declaration by the positivists as non-sense.
In addition, although Popper suggested we should not argue over words, Popperians do not seem to be willing to grant Mises's use of the word "science," most likely meant as "organized knowledge." They fail to recognize the fact that Mises was already well-established, having published his groundbreaking Theory of Money and Credit in 1912, when Popper was 10—almost 25 years before Logik der Forschung. That his understanding of a word would be different from one Popper had himself created is hardly surprising.
Popperians are largely a politically confused bunch, as was Popper. Jeremy Shearmur wrote, in The Political Thought of Karl Popper (122), "I do not know what real-world institutions could even approximate to by playing the kind of role that [Popper] would be asking of them.” In fact, Popper's political thinking does not seem to rise much above what I learned in high school civics class, consisting mostly of platitudes about open discussion and criticism, after which the piecemeal social engineers impose their will and somehow, assess their success.
Without attitudes that are more akin to that of Popper himself, Popperians are likely to be impediments to, rather than facilitators of, progress.