Essentialism produces non-falsifiable hypotheses

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Chapter 8 endnote 15, from How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Some context is:

It’s easy to come up with reasons why an experiment did not detect an [emotion] essence: “we haven’t looked everywhere yet,” or “it’s inside this complicated biological structure we can’t see into yet,” or “our tools today aren’t sufficiently powerful to find the essence, but one day they will be.” These hopeful thoughts are heartfelt but logically impossible to prove false. [...] Hope can be dangerous in science.

In many parts of life, hope is a good thing, but in science, not so much. Science is the quantification of doubt.[1] We know to be skeptical of an idea if a lot of doubt surrounds it. Ideas that are bulletproof to doubt, however, are impenetrable to science. They are non-falsifiable and therefore unhelpful, as least where science is concerned.

Essentialism encourages what the psychology Tony Greenwald calls a “disconfirmation dilemma.”[2] If the measurements you make during the experiment are inconsistent with your hypothesis, then do you reject your hypothesis, or do you assume your experiment was flawed and therefore not a good test of your hypothesis? Do the data call your hypothesis or your experiment into doubt? For example, if your hypothesis is that people scowl when they are angry, and when your measurements indicate that people make many different types of facial movements when angry, does this mean your hypothesis was incorrect, or that your way of evoking anger or measuring facial movements was flawed?


Notes on the Notes

  1. Gee, Henry. 2013. The Accidental Species: Misunderstandings of Human Evolution. University of Chicago Press.
  2. Greenwald, Anthony G., and David L. Ronis. 1981. "On the conceptual disconfirmation of theories." Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 7 (1): 131-137.