Saturday, April 03, 2010

Feynman: utter honesty required

The following Richard Feynman quote was quoted in a climate change discussion at Roger Pielke Jnr's blog. Roger's blog provides a whole range of excellent and seems to me reliable information about "problems" (including corruption) with the IPCC official science. Roger and his other guest contributors think that global warming is an important issue but argue that it is being managed poorly by most politicians and many scientists. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the overlap of the AGW issue with the economics, science and politics of it.

The Feynman quote and the whole article applies to any serious search for truth.

CARGO CULT SCIENCE by Richard Feynman
It is interesting, therefore, to bring it out now and speak of it explicitly. It's a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty--a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you're doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid--not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you've eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked--to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can--if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong--to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.

In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.


Mark Miller said...

I enjoyed the article. The hot spring story gave me a laugh. :) He illustrates something I've found as well, that while "cargo cult science" does not give a realistic view of the world, it doesn't matter to many. In fact it's so easily accepted by some that it helps create a kind of social understanding between them that's often frustrated and confounded me. I've dabbled in some of this stuff, but I've never gotten the satisfaction out of it that its practitioners have.

Quoting from the article:

"When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition."

Interesting. Jerry King was saying the same thing about mathematics, that the best proofs are ones that not only prove an implication, but also have wider applicability.

"But this long history of learning how not to fool ourselves--of having utter scientific integrity--is, I'm sorry to say, something that we haven't specifically included in any particular course that I know of. We just hope you've caught on by osmosis."

Well this helps explain something. In one of my other comments on your blog I talked about arguing with a couple alarmists. One of them finally told me that he had Feynman as one of his science teachers years ago. I had already ascertained that his understanding of the scientific outlook was poor, at least as it pertained to AGW. Assuming he was being honest with me, this revelation shocked me a bit. Not to say that my understanding of the scientific outlook is that great either, but I often found this man's discernment about AGW evidence to be shockingly primitive. I wondered how someone who had had an opportunity to work with Feynman could've come away with a view of the natural world that was analogous to the superstitions of ancient peoples, but in "scientific garb".

I had no idea at what level he had worked with him, whether it was at the graduate or undergraduate level. The science courses I had at the undergraduate level were no different in character than what I had in high school. The mathematical concepts involved were more sophisticated, but that's the only difference I could pick out.

I often refer to the movie "Contact" when the issue of "science and society" comes up, because as I've thought more about it I've found it explores the realities of this subject, and epistemology in science, though from an emotional basis (which is easier for a wide audience to relate to). Even so, a lot of people missed the point of it, IMO. It explores what drives scientists. It challenges the idea that anyone, even scientists, have a clear idea of what's going on, though scientists and engineers have a clearer idea than most, and they can act hubristic about this. It dramatizes what Feynman talks about: that we're not a scientific society, and that it's difficult, sometimes impossible, to express something that comes from a scientific outlook to a society that doesn't understand it. It also dramatizes the consequence of this state of affairs: Science is at the mercy of those who do not understand it, but is lucky enough to have some supporters who value it on faith.

Mark Miller said...

Meant to add, the story about Young, the scientist who did experiments with a rat in a corridor, reminded me of a part in the book, "The Restaurant at the End of the Universe", by Douglas Adams, where the main characters discover that it was in fact the mice who were doing psychological experiments on scientists, not the other way around. :)