Scientific Integrity & Honesty – Qualities of the ‘Great Explainer’ Part 3

Why to ‘Know Thyself’ helps us Communicate Science Effectively

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists.’ – Richard Feynman

From my observations and experiences in the field communicating with high school students this semester, talking with colleagues, and engaging with the content of the CST course, it is now my deep-seated belief that to communicate science effectively, we must first be able to be hyperaware of our own thinking, to step back and observe our own habits of mind – our common cognitive biases, likes, and dislikes.

The technical term is metacognition or simply, the process of ‘thinking about thinking’ – to step back and observe our mind run its course. Metacognition is a difficult skill and one that I certainly struggle with at times but it’s absolutely crucial to communicating science effectively and I would argue to practice science rigorously as well.

Our goal as a science communicator involves connecting our mind to one or more other minds on scientific ideas, where at any one point, someone is leading the other on an intellectual journey – I say ‘someone’ as science communication ideally is a two-way discussion with some room for discovery but ultimately has purpose and direction.

When we become the designated science communicator, we are then the leader of such a journey, and to ensure we can engage and influence other minds so that they arrive at the same scientific idea, in other words to transmit a scientific idea with high fidelity and avoiding misunderstandings or miscommunicating, we must first ensure that we the communicators have a habit of mind that itself does not generate misunderstandings. Just as when you are the designated driver for your friends on a night out, to drive them all home safely and legally, you cannot be drunk. Ultimately we must be a master of our own thought processes so that we may play the good host and guide our audience intellectually on the right path.

Feynman was an accomplished scientific thinker and communicator not so much because of any inherent genius that is unobtainable to other human beings, rather because he had cultivated a passionate habit of being constantly aware of his thinking process and to ensuring that it operated as rigorously as possible. In this way he was rarely subject to faulty thinking and therefore could arguably never be swayed by popular opinion on an issue without evidence.

This made him very confident on what he knew and what he didn’t know. It then seems straight-forward as to how he earned the epithet of the ‘Great Explainer’. He could explain with incredible clarity and aptitude what he knew and had earned to know and to simply acknowledge that he didn’t know something when he really didn’t know. His adeptness as a metacognitive thinker enabled a kind of intellectual honesty that made him a much more powerful thinker and communicator of science than the deluded.

Socrates, another heavy-weight thinker, summed it up well when he said: ‘I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and this is that I know nothing.’ He also coined the timeless advice: ‘Know thyself’, that I first saw hanging as a placard over the kitchen of the Oracle that Neo notices in The Matrix.

Just as importantly, Feynman was OK with not knowing, no ego bruised, he could handle confusion. In fact, being able to handle confusion is probably a key component of innovating, as Feynman did throughout his life, since it’s only being able to live in the unknown that we can discover new things.

Here is a very short and powerful clip on Feynman talking about the feeling of confusion.

In a book of Feynamn’s anecdotes from which I have drawn many of the ones I have mentioned in my blog: Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman: Adventures of a Curious Character and an autobiography of sorts, in a chapter entitled ‘Cargo Cult Science’, he gives examples of pseudosciences, what constitutes them, and how to avoid bad scientific thinking. He talks about this kind of scientific integrity or honesty: ‘a leaning over backwards’ and having a look at an idea. Feynman tells us:

‘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 with it: other causes that could possible 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’

‘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’

Going back to our analogy of guiding an audience on a journey, not only must you be a good guide or leader, you must also be an utterly honest one and lead them to where they should be going, not somewhere that benefits any selfish motives. Feynman points out astutely that antithetical to good science communication is the world of advertising, with their showcasing of selective truths and half-truths.

As has become tradition as of yesterday, here is another of those beloved XKCD comic strips to end this post that summarises the main thrust of this post – of scientific integrity and honesty, with a touch of scientific whimsy and love 🙂