Sunday, August 08, 2004

Chess and Falsificationism

From Nature

Along with her colleague Ruth Byrne, she recruited 20 chess players, ranging from regular tournament players to a grand master. She presented each participant with six different chessboard positions from halfway through a game, where black and white had equal chances of winning and there was no immediately obvious next move.

Each player had to speak their thoughts aloud as they decided what move to make. Cowley scored the quality of the move sequences by comparing them with Fritz 8, one of the most powerful chess computer programs available.

She found that novices were more likely to convince themselves that bad moves would work out in their favour, because they focused more on the countermoves that would benefit their strategy while ignoring those that led to the downfall of their cherished hypotheses.

Conversely, masters tended to correctly predict when the eventual outcome of a move would weaken their position. “Grand masters think about what their opponents will do much more,” says Byrne. “They tend to falsify their own hypotheses.”

“We probably all intuitively know this is true,” says Orr. “But it's never a bad thing to prove it like this.”

The philosopher Karl Popper called this process of hypothesis testing 'falsification', and thought that it was the best way to describe how science constantly questions and refines itself. It is often held up as the principle that separates scientific and non-scientific thinking, and the best way to test a hypothesis.