(Dis)Respecting Experts! – Qualities of the ‘Great Explainer’ Part 4


“Dr. Feynman”, I asked, “Einstein was one of the greatest geniuses of physics, and certainly a lot smarter than me. He knew more physics that I ever hope to. But, he didn’t believe in quantum mechanics–so why should I?”

Feynman paused — which surprised all of us — and smiled. He looked at me and said, in that wonderful Far Rockaway accent, “Nature doesn’t care how smart you are. You can still be wrong.” He went on to explain some background on Einstein’s view of physics, and why he might feel that way… Feynman’s answer to my question made me realize that, no matter how smart these guys were, they could make mistakes’ – David Adler (http://www.fotuva.org/online/)

One thing that I loved about Feynman in addition to his quirkiness and creativity was that he was so rigorous in his thinking that he always questioned the established order, particularly self-proclaimed ‘experts’ or any unexamined rituals that many of us partake in without a moment’s thought.

He was a force for good science and a rebel at heart. Naturally some of his challenges were quite extreme at times and startling but equally amusing. I heard he once questioned the evidence for brushing our teeth everyday, to such an extent that his dentist had to bring him scientific papers on why brushing our teeth was beneficial! Feynman, I’m sure, would have much preferred to carry out the experiments himself.

I’ve always been a little troubled by the fact that humans are subjective beings – we all have differing perceptions of reality e.g. think about colour-blind people and how optical illusions affect some people and not others. Or how we tend to see things that we like to see even though it doesn’t match reality, and how we can recreate memories and believe they’re true even though we’ve never experienced them. It’s troubled me that as subjective beings, we’re trying to partake in science which should be an objective activity. Can we ever really perceive reality for what it is? I’ve settled with the idea that perhaps we can get very close to it by being careful, rechecking, and that by being very close is still a worthy pursuit, given its benefits.

Considering there is such a human element to conducting science, we must also bear in mind that ‘experts’ are also human and must be subjected to the same level of scrutiny for their ideas as much as anyone else. Feynman was no exception either, if you could point out a flaw in his thinking of course!

Feynman in a 1966 address to the National Science Teachers Association in New York City titled ‘What is Science’ (http://www.fotuva.org/online/frameload.htm?/online/science.htm),  mentions there have been great advantages to the human race as we learned over the course of human history to collectively preserve and spread ideas (which since 1966 has grown increasingly rapid and pervasive with the advent of the internet), but with that, there is also the flip-side of bad ideas, such as superstitions, also having matching virility.

Here is an extract from that address by Feynman:

‘Then a way of avoiding the disease was discovered. This is to doubt that what is being passed from the past is in fact true, and to try to find out ab initio again from experience what the situation is, rather than trusting the experience of the past in the form in which it is passed down. And that is what science is: the result of the discovery that it is worthwhile rechecking by new direct experience, and not necessarily trusting the [human] race[‘s] experience from the past. I see it that way. That is my best definition.’

He’s not saying that we should be stubbornly contrarian to everything we learn. Instead, we must take everything we learn, especially from ‘experts’ with a ‘delicate balance of respect and disrespect’. So that as we pass on the human race’s ‘accumulated wisdom’ as we do in science communication, we also pass on the ‘wisdom that it may not be wisdom’.

Feynman ends the address with an attitude that I believe is absolutely crucial to good science and science communication:

‘It is necessary to teach both to accept and to reject the past with a kind of balance that takes considerable skill. Science alone of all the subjects contains within itself the lesson of the danger of belief in the infallibility of the greatest teachers of the preceding generation. So carry on. Thank you.’

What have you learned so far in life? Will they stand up to testing and experience?