Tag Archives: Popper

Intelligent openness

Photo credit: Tom

As an engineer and an academic, my opinion as an expert is sought often informally but less frequently formally, perhaps because I am reluctant to offer the certainty and precision that is so often expected of experts and instead I tend to highlight the options and uncertainties [see ‘Forecasts and chimpanzees throwing darts’ on September 2nd 2020].  These options and uncertainties will likely change as more information and knowledge becomes available.  An expert, who changes their mind and cannot offer certainty and precision, tends not to be welcomed by society, and in particular the media, who want simple statements and explanations.  One problem with offering certainty and precision as an expert is that it might appear you are part of a technocratic subset seeking to impose their values on the rest of society, as Mary O’Brien has argued.  The philosopher Douglas Walton has suggested that it is improper for experts to proffer their opinion when there is a naked assertion that the expert’s identity warrants acceptance of their opinion or argument.  Both O’Brien and Walton have argued that expert authority is legitimate only when it can be challenged, which is akin to Popper’s approach to the falsification of scientific theories – if it is not refutable then it is not science.  An expert’s authority should be acceptable only when it can be challenged and Onora O’Neill has argued that trustworthiness requires intelligent openness.  Intelligent openness means that the information being used by the expert is accessible and useable; the expert’s decision or argument is understandable (clearly explained in plain language) and assessable by someone with the time, expertise and access to the detail so that they can attempt to refute the expert’s statements.  In other words, experts need to be  transparent and science needs to be an open enterprise.


Burgman MA, Trusting judgements: how to get the best out of experts, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Harford T, How to make the world add up: 10 rules for thinking differently about numbers, London: Bridge Street Press, 2020.

O’Brien M, Making better environmental decisions: an alternative to risk assessment, Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 2000.

Walton D, Appeal to expert opinion: arguments from authority, University Park PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997.

Royal Society, Science as an open enterprise, 2012: https://royalsociety.org/topics-policy/projects/science-public-enterprise/report/

Dream machine

Painting by Katy Gibson

Painting by Katy Gibson

A machine that can do work indefinitely without any external input of energy.  It would solve the world’s energy problems, eliminate global warming and make the inventor very rich.  There have been so many attempts to design such a machine that a classification system has been established.  My machine, that does work indefinitely with no energy input, would be a perpetual motion machine of the first type because energy is not conserved – a contradiction of the first law of thermodynamics.  The second type contravene the second law of thermodynamics, usually by spontaneously converting heat into work, and the third type eliminates friction and, or other dissipative forces.

I said ‘my machine’ in the sense that I have an on-going sporadic correspondence with the inventor of a machine that is claimed to produce ‘power above the primary power that drives it’.  It is an epistemic impossibility, which means that it cannot exist within our current understanding of the real world.  In other words, if a perpetual motion machine was to be proven to exist then the laws of thermodynamics would have to be rewritten.  This would probably lead to an invitation to Stockholm to collect a Nobel prize.

Such arguments make no difference to inventors of perpetual motion machines.  Many appear to start from the premise that the laws of thermodynamics have not been proven and hence they must not be universally applicable, i.e. there is space for their invention.  Whereas the laws of thermodynamics form part of our current understanding of the world because no one has demonstrated their falsity despite many attempts over the last two hundred years.  This is consistent with the philosophical ideas introduced by Karl Popper in the middle of the last century.  He proposed that a hypothesis cannot be proven to be correct using observational evidence but its falsity can be demonstrated.

So, inventors need to build and demonstrate their perpetual motion machines in order to falsify the relevant law of science.  At this stage money as an input usually becomes an issue rather than energy!


The painting by Katy Gibson is from a series made as part from an art and engine collaboration between Okemos High School Art Program and the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Michigan State University.