Have you ever heard of the term “falsifiability”? It’s an idea from philosophy of science, but like a lot of philosophical concepts it isn’t only useful for obscure, academic conversations. It also has real-world applications, and it can help you make better decisions.
So what is falsifiability? The classic example of falsifiability asks us to consider the statement “all swans are white.” All you have to do is find one non-white swan and you’ve shown it isn’t necessarily true. The statement is therefore falsifiable because it’s possible to find evidence that contradicts it.
That’s a great example and all, but what does falsifiability mean for us in our daily lives?
I always thought it was stupid to tell people to stand up for what they believe in. What if they believe in something that’s objectively wrong? It doesn’t do anyone any good to believe the sun is pink and defend that to their dying day. A much better way to live is to focus on believing in what is real and true.
This is what falsifiability can do for us in our everyday interactions: it helps us form better, more accurate beliefs, make better decisions, and live a better life.
Falsifying a Volcano
What does falsifiability mean to me, personally? For one, it helped me make an informed decision about whether or not I should flee from an erupting volcano.
A few years ago, I lived in a small town near the mountains. Out of the blue, a friend texted to say there was unusual seismic activity in the area. His conclusion was that a supervolcano was about to erupt. If I wanted to live, I had to get out by the end of the week.
I trust my friend, and if the reports of earthquakes were true, I had to accept the possibility of an eruption. I couldn’t just accept his word for it, though. There were facts about the world I needed to consider before making a decision.
I looked online and found a monitoring station near the supervolcano. Scientists there confirmed that yes, there was strange seismic activity going on, but no, there was no indication an eruption was about to occur. Not today, not this weekend, and not for the next thousand years.
I didn’t want to form a belief based on incorrect information. I realized this statement was falsifiable through real-world data, which I uncovered, digested, and used to make an informed decision.
Falsifiability Helps Us Make Better Decisions
Falsifiability doesn’t have to stay confined to volcanoes or raw scientific data. We can put it into action in our daily lives.
What’s a decision you’re wrestling with right now? One of mine is the question of how many hours I should work during the week. Conventional wisdom says a minimum of 40. That “feels right” to me, and it might feel right to you, as well.
That belief doesn’t have a lot of grounding in the real world, though. Psychology studies show that humans are poorly suited to focusing on tasks for this long, and doing it week after week for months on end leads to burnout.
I know this from my own experience as well:
- Personal experience tells me that putting in 40, 50, or 60 hours of work per week takes a toll on my mental wellbeing.
- Multiple large-scale studies show that people are happier, healthier, and more creative when they work fewer than 40 hours per week.
The idea that “40 hours per week is how much everyone should work” is easily falsifiable. Is this belief 100% infallibly correct? I’m sure it isn’t. But I have no reason to rely on conventional wisdom and every reason to seek information from the real world to help me live a better life.
What Does Falsifiability Mean to You?
Even these basics of falsifiability can help you get unstuck from negative situations. It could help you to challenge the mistaken idea that you’re “better off” staying with an abusive partner, or that your parents always know what’s best for you, even if you don’t agree with their opinions.
You can make better decisions by comparing your beliefs with the real world. The hardest part is having the courage to examine your life and accept the fact that some of your beliefs may be mistaken. By doing this, though, you can lead a better life, one decision at a time.
Try following these steps to integrate falsifiability into your life:
- Think about a decision you’re about to make. Maybe it’s about what to cook for dinner, or whether or not it’s worth it to go to university.
- What beliefs are you relying on to make that decision? Is it that getting a degree will help you make more money?
- Ask yourself the hard question: Is it possible that this belief could be false?
- Research your belief. Look past “common sense” and “conventional wisdom.” See what real-world observations have to say.
- Read, read some more, and reflect the new information. Don’t just accept it as-is, really think about it and internalize it.
- If you realize your belief was mistaken; revise it. If it seems correct, make sure you’re basing that decision on information, not a fear of change.
- Re-evaluate your decision from a fresh perspective.
You can do this with everyday things, or you can challenge long-held beliefs that seem so self-evident that they couldn’t be anything but true. You can even ask yourself big questions like “Is there such a thing as universal right and wrong?”
This method of practical beliefs and decision making isn’t about discovering absolute rights or wrongs. It’s about improving your internal frameworks and bettering your life one decision at a time. It’s incremental, but incremental improvements build to gigantic changes.
Self-Reflection is Key
Engaging in self-reflection is probably the hardest part of the steps above. It’s also the most important.
Self-reflection gives us a chance to analyze and verify our beliefs. Without it, we would never understand the content of our beliefs. We don’t have to adopt a position of extreme skepticism where we doubt everything, of course. But when we bring a belief to our attention, we can look at it from as neutral of a perspective as we can.
For me, what makes this a challenge is that I don’t want to be wrong. Nobody wants to be wrong, really, especially not when it comes to beliefs we’ve held onto for a long time.
But there’s something liberating about spearing obsolete beliefs. It’s like spring cleaning for your mind. Out with the crusty old beliefs that, while comforting, probably aren’t serving much of a purpose. In with the new beliefs that are (hopefully) more stable, reliable, and better connected to reality.
New beliefs aren’t meant to be carved in stone. They’re there so you can make incrementally better decisions. If you make them permanent and unchanging, you lose the ability to refine them as you learn, grow, and experience new things.
You can start this process of self-reflection right now by asking a simple question: “Could my belief be wrong?” or “Could this idea be falsified?” I can’t think of a situation where the answer would be “no, of course not.” If a belief can be wrong, it’s worth investigating to see if you can adjust it to be more right.
Remember that the real world is messy and unpredictable. Each of us makes good decisions and bad decisions; there’s no reason to hold ourselves to a standard of unattainable perfection. If you keep your beliefs system nimble and grounded in reality, though, you’ll always be prepared to take that next step towards a better self.
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