Fast forward to the 20th Century and when it came to induction, Karl Popper wasn’t so sure. In fact, Karl Popper wasn’t really sure that we could know anything science tells us with certainty.

His big idea was that because of the induction problem (unless you have all the evidence then you can’t know that you aren’t missing something) no scientific theory can be proven with certainty, it can only be falsified.

So instead of trying to find ways to justify our theories and ideas, we should instead focus on trying things out, deliberately looking for the errors and then correcting them.

I’m going to be honest with you here, when I first came across him during my degree, I was not a great fan of Mr Popper (and not just because he sounds like the own-brand version of a soft drink).

As a teenager I was hungry for knowledge I could actually use, and knowing I couldn’t really know anything seemed like pretty useless information.

How in sweet fudge are we supposed to go through life, smugly telling each other that ignorance is permanent and learning is futile?

But his ideas provided the inspiration for perhaps (in my opinion) the most important breakthrough in making better choices of modern times.


flickr photo by evil_mel shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

flickr photo by evil_mel shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

So here we are, bumbling our way through this thing called life; questioning our assumptions and trying to do the best we can to make sensible decisions. We weigh up the evidence, take the best advice we can find and bet on what we think are the smartest odds to have a happy, healthy existence.

Then, BAM, something comes out of nowhere and completely knocks us sideways.

I can clean my teeth, eat my greens, lay off the fags and booze, and might still be dead by tea time.

It’s the ‘hit by a bus tomorrow’ problem: you can have lived the perfect life where you earnestly assumed that the highly probable outcome of your choices would always be the one that happened, yet still get wiped out by something incredibly unlikely.

If you’re anything like me, in day to day life you’ll sometimes meet people with absolute confidence in their own way of doing things. They will seem to succeed in spite of everything and while I slave away trying to do the right and sensible thing, they’ll speed past me by doing stupid and risky things that somehow always seem to pay off.

Now induction might tempt me to think that this other person might know something I don’t. That they aren’t just lucky and that they won’t come a cropper when their luck runs out.

If only I’d known what they knew, if only I’d been braver, if only I’d bought shares in Apple ten years ago or chosen the winning lottery numbers.

Yet beating yourself up about things you couldn’t possibly have known is obviously not the answer, and nor is taking stupid risks. There’s no theory of life that won’t have some cracks in it and blind luck will always play a part in whatever happens.

And here’s where things get interesting.

Much like the version of history I’ve regaled you with in this blog post, we often smooth the rough edges of reality in order to make life easier to deal with and ideas easier to remember. But in the dust of those sanded edges lie all the messy uncertainties that make real life as unpredictable as it is…

…and that is where the black swans live. (I told you they’d be back).

In modern life, many of the old certainties have been replaced by our awareness that much of life is random. As life becomes busier and more complex, the luxury of telling each other to be sensible is no longer enough to get by.

The question is: how do you balance sensible long-term choices with the dangers of playing too safe?


Next week on Foolosophy:

BIG IDEAS #3: Black Swan theory – how to deal with uncertainty.


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