Standards for Scientific Knowledge: Logical Empiricism


The theory of construction of scientific knowledge has been examined traditionally through positivist lenses. The empirical background of scientific knowledge is based in quantitative analyses and evidentiary based studies that rely on human observations to prove or disprove theories or statement of facts. Developed by Auguste Comete, the logical positivist influence molded much of scientific knowledge right until the early twentieth century and was bereft of normative aspects of associated disciplines of science. The natural sciences wielded much influence over the methodological supremacy of knowledge construction. Positivism focused on the measurable aspects of science and relied on the cumulative or progressive nature of building theories as a measure of constructing scientific knowledge. The core belief was constituted by the verifiability of facts by empirical observation of reality.

Initiated by Hume and furthered by Karl Popper, the standards for scientific knowledge veered from verifiability to falsifiability. This departure from having to prove facts to having to withstand disproving facts was initiated by the problem of induction. Scientific knowledge until then was based on inductive methods that relied on observations. The inherent logic of induction was cyclical and observation of a single anomaly rendered the entire approach invalid. Thus, logically speaking, no amount of positive outcomes or verifiable observations can confirm a scientific theory especially when a single counter observation can disprove the theory thus constructed.

According to Popper, scientific knowledge is inherently conjectural and hypothetical that can only be subjected to rigorous scientific tests [in reference to their implications] but can never be accepted as disprovable fact. Thus, Popper used the test of falsifiability as a measure for setting scientific standards. He used this test as a ‘criteria of demarcation’ between scientific knowledge and metaphysical hypothesis. According to Popper, any theory or statement that aspires to be scientific shall also incorporate disproving statements along with proof statement within its construction i.e. their formulation shall be such that “to verify them and to falsify them must both be logically possible.”

The method of observation was also discounted as being fallible to our sensory limitations and prejudiced perceptions of the subject matter. Objective examination of scientific knowledge termed as critical rationalism called for the distinguishing system to be different from the one that represents our world of experience. Subjective experiences and “feelings of conviction” should be clearly differentiated from the logical relations of the scientific statements. Thus, the focus was shifted from inductive reasoning to deductive analysis. The deductive method of testing is not intended to establish or justify the statements that are being tested thus it does not suffer from the infinite regress problem that plagues induction. The standard for scientific knowledge, according to Popper, was not in the actual implementation of testing of any scientific fact but rather in the capability of being tested thus.

On a related note, although Popper’s departure from empiricism to falsification and critical rationalism was noteworthy, subsequent contributions by Lakatos and Thomas Kuhn greatly clarified the methods by which standards for scientific knowledge are set. Using the criticism of Duhem-Quine thesis that it doesn’t help to discard the set of theories when in fact only one element of the theoretical package has been falsified, Lakatos clarified Popper’s ‘naïve falsification’.

The Lakatosian standard for scientific knowledge emphasized that research programs rather than universal statements are falsified. The body of statements that envelope a core truth-statement are subjected to tests of falsification before the core is tested. Only when the supporting research programs fail to live up to the tests, is the core universal statement challenged and subsequently changed if falsified. Thomas Kuhn relied on the use of paradigms to explain the progress of scientific standards rather than a falsificationist methodology that he said was not typical of the scientific community.

This was a brief summary of the epistemological approaches of scientific knowledge and establishment of standards that constituted science. I shall now explore the suitability of such standards for planning and policy inquiry.

Scientific Standards in Planning

Planning is generically described as a top-down process that attempts to reallocate spaces and resources for maximization of utility not just on economic terms but also in terms of socio-economic implications. This dichotomy of objectives – facts and values – makes planning contextual and makes its definition among empirical sciences highly controversial. Since planning has been traditional associated with government, it also overlap policy inquiry which in its history has undergone several transformations; right from PPBS (Planning-Programming-Budgeting-System) to MBO (Management by Objectives) to ZBB (Zero-based budgeting) to GAA (goals-achievement analysis) (Hudson, 1979). Planning, briefly defined as “”foresight in formulating and implementing programs and policies,” establishes it as a form of science attempting to craft theories and statements to explain or ameliorate social conditions. In the planning literature, five traditions – synoptic, incremental, transactive, advocacy, and radical (SITAR) – dominate the theory-building exercises with their own epistemological underpinnings for constructing knowledge.

But every stream of planning concerns itself with reinforcing public interest and offers a range of legitimate interventions in social, political, and economic scenarios to better the status quo. We shall examine the influence of scientific standards as described above in the purview of planning and policy inquiry and comment on the appropriateness of these standards on different kinds of planning problems.

In the Popperian tradition, planning is not seen as an operation separated from other forms of social action, but rather as a process embedded in continual evolution of ideas validated through action (Friedmann, 1973).

However, the emphasis contrary to Popper remains on validation and not falsification. This anomaly can be explained by use of social tools rooted in reality rather than formulating conjectures that may be subject to refutations at a later date. Traditional planning often constitutes as a problem-solving measure rather than an explanatory tool and hence relies primarily on validation that can be cited in the short-term as a public interest goal. Taking a step back and examining planning theories on basis of logical empiricism, we must first define the goals of planning. Planning basically relies on the normative goals of defining public interest, furthering social justice, and incorporating the human dimension of examining intangible outcomes. Planning departs from traditional science that assumes a neutral and objective look at the facts and makes a logical decision based on observations.

Adhering to normative values is akin to incorporating subjective prejudices that science is expected to distance itself from. Planning processes are often not amenable to separation of distinct observations and independence of fact statements primarily due to its interconnectivity with and strong ties with social and environmental conditions. Unhindered neutrality is often impossible due to political leanings and influences of planning methods.

For most forms of planning, the centrality or vesting power in the state regarding decision-making for the publics was criticized. Planners however function in the public sphere and are held to a higher standards of accountability than natural scientists. Logical empiricists often have the luxury, for lack of a better word, to conduct experiments in isolation bereft of environmental influences in order to discount for interference but planners although also expected to anticipate the future work in a social context and thus, their expectations and subsequent results can never be scientifically based (Faludi, 1986).

Certain problems in planning like examining cost-benefit analysis for a specific site can somewhat be based in logical empiricism but often such methods too incorporate the human element unintentionally which doesn’t have a fixed value under all circumstances and therefore must be explained with relevant social conditions present at that time. The shift from goal-oriented to problem-solving approaches in planning theory also distanced methods of empiricism from planning due to focus on specific solutions to solve problems in the short term instead of broad-based societal ameliorating goals that usually occurred in the long run.

Synoptic planning or the rational comprehensive approach in planning was rooted in the post-WWII era from the application of scientific method to problem solving and decision-making. Planning was construed as creating an imagery of the future in order to postulate future actions. In order to achieve the desirable future, actions would be formulated with intended levels of probability of their success. Thus, Popper’s approach toward rationality in planning highlighted a key difference between logical probability and ‘verisimilitude’. The latter merely represents the idea of approaching comprehensive truth by combining truth and content whereas probability on the other hand, combines truth and lack of content (Chadwick, 1978). Such kinds of social engineering, as opposed to technical engineering is an unbounded process and seemingly limitless in options and alternatives.

Planning, as opposed to natural scientific methods have little control over their environment due to real-world placement and are chronically short of reliable information. To correct the lack of information available upfront, the planning process actually can be iterative and piecemeal that has a distinct normative component instead of a comprehensive all-inclusive approach.

Planning processes often are evaluated at the process level and appropriately modified by tweaking the methods in order to achieve the intended results. This can be likened to continually developing the hypothesis, if it can be referred to as thus. If this revised hypothesis stands up to the test and is not falsified, it will replace the original hypothesis. This is a distinct departure from the scientific method wherein hypothesis and assumptions are stated upfront and any deference is construed as invalidation of the study. At the same time, such incremental approaches also cannot fully explain the planning methodology to problem solving.

Sometimes, in order to approach an upcoming field such as sustainability or environmental-friendly planning, a Kuhnian paradigm shift is necessary to realign our previously held beliefs to a new order. This approach can effectively require practitioners to abandon previously held notions and rethink planning approaches yet remain faithful to their theoretical constructs.

Planning experiments often change the status quo and hence the system or social condition cannot be reset to its default state in order to repeat the process. The planning experiment must be modified and readapted to suit the changed social construct. The traditional Geddesian approach of “survey-analysis-plan” was strictly based on the positivistic scientific method but in reality, planners begin with formulating their ideas and assumption about the given problem and then go about working their analysis around the problem to achieve a desirable outcome. The subjective prejudicial component that is abhorred in traditional scientific pursuit is actually encouraged and pursued in planning methodology.

However, that does not discount the need for scientific criteria for testability against predetermined measures that usually are in line with social and cultural norms. Thus, effectively even though the subjective angle is not excluded, planning statements, if expected to be chosen as acceptable theory, still need to be expressed in terms such that they can be falsified. Specific planning statements however should be distinguished from broad-based theoretical statements.

In Popperian (and Simon’s) terms, unbounded nature of planning is unacceptable due to man’s limited ability to do so. Yet some form of planning approaches like cost-benefit analyses, comprehensive planning, and environmental planning continue to be pursued in this direction. A middle ground would be to distance plans as a form of formal hypotheses that would be tested in isolation and instead place them in specific context and subject them to continual monitoring (Reade, 1983). This would investigate the extent to which it produces intentional effects and also allow for unintended effects that would allow planners to modify methods to produce knowledge.

As Rittel and Webber (1974) elaborate, there are no true or false answers in planning but in fact, good or bad answers. That decision is often subjective to the public that planning solutions are directed towards. In fact, there can be a mixed reaction depending on the different value-judgments of stakeholders. Planning problems can be differentiated according to their intended consequences and thus, planning methodology has been adequately suited to their purposes. The higher the level of a problem’s formulation, the broader and more general it becomes, and more difficult it becomes to do something about it, and subsequently, the less applicable the scientific methods are to resolve it. The larger problems in planning literature can be likened to a Lakatosian ‘hard core’ surrounded by flexible ‘research programs’ that continually shift in time and context and thus can be amenable to change before actually addressing the ‘hard core’. The ‘emerging trends’ in planning can similarly be likened to Kuhn’s ‘anomalies’ that can cause a dramatic shift in perception comparable to a ‘paradigm’ (Zonneveld, 1991).


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Hudson, B. M. (1979). “Comparison of Current Planning Theories: Counterparts
and Contradictions.” Journal of the American Planning Association 45(4): 387–98.

Kuhn, T. S. (1963). “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” Chicago, IL.

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