Repeatedly Stumbling into Karl Popper

BY PHIL WOOD.

It is difficult for me to explain how I became so involved with critical rationalism and Karl Popper’s writings because the questions he addresses have been so much a part of my life from an early age. I also do not have the academic philosophical credentials of others I have read here. I will try to write down a few notes of autobiography and hope the story can be made interesting. 

Beginnings. I was born on a farm in Northeast Iowa near a town of 1,100 people named Strawberry Point. Our farm had electricity, but it went first where it was needed – the barn where the milk cooler was located. A line also ran to our kitchen where we had a radio, refrigerator and, later, a freezer in the pantry. We heated our house with wood from our nearby timber and ate mostly from our garden. As a child I really wished we had a television (and caught up with a vengeance when we finally got one). My early memories include our Percheron horses, Prince and King. I’m maybe one of the last non-Amish people who remembers farming with horses, though Dad also had a tractor bought with war bonds from WW II which he kept in service until he moved off the farm. My mother was a war bride and, in my early years my Grandmother lived with us. We spoke German at home around my Grandmother and English around other people (or when we didn’t want Grandmother to know what we were talking about).

The Environment. Although our home did not have much money, it was lavish in other respects. It was built in years just prior to the Civil War by my great-great grandfather, an Englishman from Great Ayton, England. The building was Greek revival, with thirteen-foot high ceilings, a marble fireplace in each room, and plaster of Paris ceiling medallions and cornerwork. I was told my bedroom housed nine hired hands and the room above the kitchen was where the maid lived. Although great-great grandfather wanted to raise and export grapes, he made considerable money by speculating in land ahead of the route of the continental railroad being built at the time. Although trained as an architect, he was considerably interested in science and published some of his inventions in Science.

The financial fortunes of the family turned but a happy upshot of this was that we had an entire library of books to pass the time and my father’s family were pathological readers. My mother joked that if toilet paper came printed I would read it before using it. Many books were those of a well-bred Englishman of the 1800’s. I’ve kept a copy of one of my favorites, A Children’s Guide to the French Revolution. Subsequent generations made their own literary contributions, dealing mostly with free-thought and politics. Philosophy books figured prominently, though, and my first encounter was at age 12 with William Durant’s survey, The Story of Philosophy. Dinner conversation topics were what you happened to be reading. Father told me that books are your best friends, as they are the best advice that civilization has come up with. I remember he gave me the Nichomachean Ethics because it was advice from a father to a son. You might chuckle to learn that, when my Mother decided it was time I learn the facts of life, my Father left a book of Robert Burns’ poems at my breakfast plate. Iowans are somewhat indirect.

Luck. Dumb luck explains many life successes for me. Standardized tests existed and teachers were surprised that I did well on them, because I was a mediocre student at best. We were seated alphabetically and, being a Wood meant I sat at the back of the class where I, being terribly near-sighted, couldn’t read the blackboard. My parents and teachers thought I was inattentive and irresponsible and, truth be told, I was and was often bored. Philosophy is not something one talks about in school. When I became armed with eyeglasses and the reputation of good standardized test scores in junior high, though, teachers told my parents I should go to college. My parents told me I could do that, but would have to find my own money for it as money was tight.

College. I had no idea of what college was. I received notice that I was National Merit Scholar but had no idea that this could qualify me for financial aid. I also thought, for example, that professors lectured in their academic robes because that’s all I had seen in pictures. I had no idea what to study. I decided to be a German major because that was the only thing I felt smart enough for, given that I already spoke German (albeit with many grammatical errors). Turns out, though, that German majors studied German literature, something I knew nothing of. My introduction to philosophy class, though, was another matter. I was intrigued by the topic of epistemology. It was taught by a “showman” who dressed the part in a suit and bow-tie and fiddled with his pipe when asked hard questions to buy himself time. Finally, someone to talk philosophy with! I went to his office hours and brought him several books from the farm I’d read. Turns out I didn’t understand them as well as I thought. He gave me a copy of Kant’s Kritik der reinen Vernunft and had me translate a few pages before every meeting. I thought he would be happy when I told him I thought I would like to study philosophy but was disappointed when he told me “Forget it, kid. Philosophy bakes no bread.” 

Bread at the time also needed to be baked. I needed to work to pay the bills. There were jobs that paid $2/hour from federal aid programs to colleges. I started working as a typist for the psychology department taking all the hours I could get. I had learned how to solder electronics from my Father, and also started helping wiring reaction time experiments. I worked at computer programming for the institutional research office of the college which was directed by a psychology professor. Being curious, I started asking questions and was surprised to learn that psychologists seemed to be making philosophy discussions but testing their ideas with data. 

At the time, though, quite by accident, I came across The Open Society and Its Enemies in our campus library. It was direct, it was clear, and not at all the difficult prose for many philosophy books. It also gave me a way of thinking about political questions. It helped me understand the allure of fascism in the economic context of the Second World War, but also gave me permission and some tools for criticizing the politics of the day which centered on Viet Nam. I followed this with Conjectures and Refutations but, to be honest, had quite a bit of difficulty merging this work with the scientific practice I was exposed to. It certainly sounded provocative, though.

Graduate School and Reflective Judgment. Psychology seemed a good major for me so I changed majors. I took a year’s worth of credit by examination, graduated in three years and went to the University of Iowa. After a year of study, I applied for and received an honorary four-year fellowship which allowed me to work with any faculty member I chose. Patricia King was an assistant professor who, with Karen Kitchener, had been working on a model of adult reasoning termed “Reflective Judgment” as measured by semi-structured interview. I found this very interesting because it documented a seven-level model of how many young adults initially move from thinking of answers to problems in black and white terms, to recognizing that such answers may not exist and are therefore a matter of opinion or whim. After this, it seemed that students began to become increasingly sophisticated in how they weigh conflicting evidence and evaluate the role of experts and conflicting disciplinary approaches.  The final stage of this model was termed “Probabilism” and drew heavily on Popper’s notions of a reasoned argument based on provisional uncertain knowledge informed and integrated by experts’ sometimes conflicting opinions.

When Dr. King left the University of Iowa, I transferred to her alma mater, the University of Minnesota where I continued to work on psychometrics in general and Reflective Judgment in particular. After graduation I took a job as a research scientist at the Max-Planck-Institut für Bildungsforschung in Berlin and a National Institute of Aging post-doctoral fellow at Penn State University. Visiting East Berlin during that time gave me a close-up view of the physical and mental privations of the closed society that Karl Popper wrote of. 

Václav Havel. At this time I started to become active in Amnesty International. One of the prisoners of conscience we sponsored was Václav Havel, a writer and dissident who later became President of Czechoslovakia. Havel cited Popper as a major influence in his political activism and literature. The fall of communism and the subsequent Velvet Revolution which followed seemed to be straight out of Popper’s Open Society and Its Enemies. Popper was later to visit Havel in Prague before his death.

Professional Life. I took a position as assistant professor at the University of Missouri in 1989. I helped write three federal grants on Reflective Judgment as an outcome of higher education. All of us doing research in this area were very pleased to read Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini describe the Reflective Judgment measure as the “best known and most extensively studied” model of cognitive growth during college. I also worked on identifying epistemic beliefs that are related to students’ study strategies in college classes.

The Berlin Wall fell in my second year at Missouri and I again witnessed the fall of a closed society. A German scientist asked that I help with the translation of his autobiography dealing with his experiences in the German Democratic Republic, political protest, imprisonment, and release to the West. Again my knowledge of German came in handy, but I learned more of the brutality, corruption, and paranoia of that closed police state. The fall of communism also put me in touch with the activities of George Soros’ Open Society Foundation and I have followed Soros’ frustration with the West’s inability to help emerging democracies birth their own open societies. Popper again seemed a lens for understanding political developments.

Although I’ve become more professionally involved in statistical questions, I’ve continued to be interested in Karl Popper’s work. This has included reading Popper’s thoughts on Bayesian inference (a very popular topic in statistical circles) and thinking on induction and, basically, anything else I can get my hands on to read. His simple direct writing style is always thought-provoking even if his Austrian academic persona continually insists he has not changed in views over his lifespan, but merely been misunderstood. I have, at this stage in my career reread Conjectures and Refutations and am not much more comfortable with the scientific humility that Popper repeatedly called for.

I’ve been very pleased to see the Critical Rationalism Facebook group grow and have learned much from the expertise of its members. At the moment I am currently working on a project dealing with the relationship of how Reflective judgment and epistemic beliefs are related to how students search for information on the internet.

In sum, I’ve found myself bumping into and stumbling across Karl Popper’s work over the years. It has helped me make sense of my educational journey and my political views and taught me the value of scientific humility.


Phil WoodPhil Wood

Columbia, Missouri, USA – Contributor

Phil was a co-host of the 24 hr. Transcontinental Popperian ZOOM Meet ‘n Greet of January 9-10, 2021.  He can be contacted at phillipkwood@gmail.com.

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