Popper and nursing theory

Nurs Philos. 2003 Apr;4(1):4-16. doi: 10.1046/j.1466-769x.2003.00114.x.


Science seems to develop by inducing new knowledge from observation. However, it is hard to find a rational justification for induction. Popper offers one attempt to resolve this problem. Nursing theorists have tended to ignore or reject Popper, often on the false belief that he is a logical positivist (and hence hostile to qualitative research). Logical positivism claims that meaningful sentences containing any empirical content should ultimately be reducible to simple, observation statements. Popper refutes positivism by showing that there are no such simple statements. He is not a positivist. For Popper, the scientist begins with problems and puts forward trial solutions. These are subjected to rigorous testing aimed at falsifying them. A new theoretical position is then reached in which the scientist knows either that the trial solutions are false or that they have not yet been falsified. Science is characterized by the fact that it tests its ideas through attempted falsification. Non-science tests its ideas through attempted refutation. Nursing theory is a mixture of science and non-science. Popper's method requires rigorous testing of theory in both realms. As such, some nursing theory should be discarded. Popper's view faces at least two important criticisms. One is that a scientist can always reject an apparent falsification by instead altering some auxiliary hypothesis (e.g. denying the accuracy of the falsifying observation). Popper can deal with this argument by saying that defence of a theory in this way will eventually break down if the theory is false. The second criticism is that Popper's method does ultimately draw upon induction. This criticism is true, but his method can be usefully adapted. An adapted from of Popper's philosophy of science provides a good basis for nursing theory.

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Nursing Theory*
  • Philosophy, Nursing*
  • Reality Testing