Science: That Feynman Speech Again

There are plenty of good reasons to dismiss the Fauxvid hoax apart from the utter lack of good scientific evidence that it even exists, let alone that lockdowns, social distancing, and masks help at all. These include the constantly changing story, amazing timing, how it was used to force the inevitable fraud of vote-by-mail, how few of us know very many people, if any, that have died or even gotten seriously ill from the virus, a basic prudent distrust of absolutely anything the press tells us about anything – but here, because I’m the weirdo I am, it’s the abuse of science that sets me off. So:

While I’ve long noted that MDs are not scientists, it is only with the advent of this virus that it dawned on me that most people with science somewhere in their job description or on their diploma are also not scientists. What I mean: generally speaking, doctors become doctors not because they want to do science, but because they want to help people. They are just about as likely as your auto mechanic or a long-haul trucker to be a scientist. Like those honored professions, MDs use a lot of tech, and follow a lot of science-y sounding rules. But an MD is about as likely to understand any of the as the trucker is to understand how relativistic adjustments are needed to achieve the accuracy of his GPS, or a mechanic to be conversant in all the metallurgy and material science that goers into an internal combustion engine. They *might*, certainly – the MD might be all over the superconductors and rules of quantum dynamics that make his CAT scanner work, but what’s more likely, in fact, observable, is that doctors, even very high ranking doctors in research, really don’t even understand basic statistics or the concepts behind establishing appropriate sample populations.

This last part, that doctors don’t really understand the science they use in establishing treatment protocols, should be obvious even without reference to any science. Is a high fat or low fat diet good for you? Should you avoid red meat, or make sure you work some into your diet? Should you eat fewer eggs to reduce your cholesterol? Are ulcers caused by stress? Is the ideal blood pressure 120/80, or something else?

If you’ve paid attention over the decades, you know the answer to these sorts of questions are yes, no, maybe, and back around again, yet always presented as dogma. Doctors see some report or study, and the topic gets on some panel somewhere, and doctors, being trained as they are to be omniscient, then produce a protocol incorporating what they believe is the latest science. The likelihood that anyone along the line actually understood the limits that are a key feature of any study is small, or, rather, that if anyone did, he could make himself heard and understood by the bulk of the committee. I’ve looked into a few instances of this in some detail over the years. One that was particularly egregious was the universal dogma that family beds – letting little babies sleep next to their mother in the same bed – was dangerous. Turns out there were 2 studies that claimed to show that family beds caused some number of infant deaths every year. Neither used any controls at all – no effort was made to filter out or otherwise allow for alcoholic or drug addicted or insane parents. Thus, the obese alcoholic mom sleeping on the couch who, in a drunken stupor, suffocates her baby, is considered the same as sober, healthy parents who, in accord with a million years of evolutionary selection, will not smother their baby in their sleep. And, eventually, with no apology or even acknowledgement, pediatricians went from cajoling parents not to sleep with their babies, no matter how well it worked for them, to having no advise on the subject, when, after 50 years as the only nation on earth where this anti-family-bed protocol was promulgated, America’s pediatricians acknowledged the obvious.

But did they acknowledge anything? Did your typical kid doc ever have a moment when he went: I’ve been giving bad advise and layering on the guilt for decades on already insecure new parents, and now I’m doing a 180? Or, rather, did they believe that the science had somehow changed?

Which brings me back to Feynman’s 1974 Cal Tech address on Cargo Cult Science. * Something I missed, or at least didn’t fully grasp. First, the relevant selection:

Now it behooves me, of course, to tell you what they’re missing.  But it would he just about as difficult to explain to the South Sea Islanders how they have to arrange things so that they get some wealth in their system.  It is not something simple like telling them how to improve the shapes of the earphones.  But there is one feature I notice that is generally missing in Cargo Cult Science.  That is the idea that we all hope you have learned in studying science in school—we never explicitly say what this is, but just hope that you catch on by all the examples of scientific investigation.  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.

From Cargo Cult Science, Richard Feynman’s 1974 Commencement Address at Cal Tech

The part I missed: after decades of teaching science to bright to brilliant students, Feynman sees the need to address what science *is*. Feynman is giving this speech to students graduating from Cal Tech – the elite, the best of the best, the very definition of ‘scientist’ in the minds of people who bother have a thought about it.

Feynman’s speech tells us that he thought 1974 graduates of Cal Tech needed to be told what science is. No one with two functioning braincells things things gotten anything but worse since then.

How could such a thing be possible? Several causes spring to mind. Recall Kuhn’s famous distinction between normal and revolutionary science. A ‘normal’ scientist spends his time trying to work out the implications of the currently accepted theory. If he runs across anomalies, results or appearances that defy that accepted theory, he sets them aside, since they only slow down his work. This working out of normal science is an important and worthy occupation. Think of all the work done filling in the Periodic Table. Dmitri Mendeleev comes up with a profound observation about how certain properties of elements reappear in a particular pattern, then predicts the properties of certain unknown elements based on where they would fall in his table. The numerous chemists who then spent countless hours filling in the table didn’t need, necessarily, that certain severe honesty that Feynman hoped those 1974 Cal Tech grads picked up along the line. They just needed to fill in the blanks, using the tools of the trade. And we’re all glad they did, lots of cool gadgets we use every day trace back to their work.

Now, there’s your old-school Russian scientist!

Einstein, to take the poster boy as the example, was doing something different. He was doing science, properly so called. He collected those anomalies mentioned above, and, with that honesty Feynman describes, laid it all on the line: If I’m right, we should see light bend around the sun, and other predictions. There was no place to hide: his math covered all the usual cases, and proposed to account for those anomalies as well. And did. Kuhn (and Popper) would be proud. What Einstein did was different in kind, not just degree.

Nowadays, the vast bulk of what people think of as science is performed by technicians. To be good or even great at my job down at the gene-splicing or super-conductor plant, I need a very high level of technical expertise. But do I need to be a scientist? Do I need to understand the general philosophical and logical requirements of ‘real’ science? Maybe, certainly some people in the process need to, but everybody? Most scientists?

If Feynman felt the need to explain some basic science to graduates of Cal Tech back in its heyday, I’m guessing the answer is no. Most normal science can be performed without much if any appreciation of how science works on anything but a base mechanical level.

I’m not here to disparage in any way the very real accomplishments of the technical people upon whose work so much of the modern world depends. What I am doing is calling into question that such folks would necessarily apply the general principles of science to evaluating claims in general. If they even know them. I would expect normal science necessarily involves a lot of simple deference to authority for reasons of practical efficiency; this seems to carry over into real life more than a zeal for rigorous truth according to scientific principles.

Of course, I’m only referring here to those folks involved in real science, where rigor, adversarial review, replication, etc., are required.

I write this to try to account for the lack of response from such scientists (Michael Levitt being the most obvious exception). First, as discussed, there are probably a lot fewer than one would imagine. Beyond that, we have the the threat of retribution, which, if you have a job and family, are pretty scary. You’ll never work in this town again is pretty real.

Thus, the baton seems to be passed to those of us who are merely scientifically literate or have nothing to lose. I have none of the technical chops required for normal science, but I am fairly confident I could understand and appreciate whatever anyone is doing in any field in accord with the scientific method.

But none of this is subtle. None of the fraud is at all something you need a degree in biology or medicine to understand. About 2/3rds of the attributed deaths are nursing home patients. Those poor souls make up about 0.4% of the population. If you knew nothing else, you could see from these facts alone that your chances, if you are of the 99.6% not in a nursing home, are 1/3rd of whatever overall numbers are being bandied about. Then, if you had even the slightest logical capacity, you might wonder at one additional little fact: that most nursing home patients don’t have long to live.

These are issues it takes no scientific training or literacy to understand. The only slightly more complex ones include the inappropriateness of applying case fatality rates to a population; the fantasy of counting deaths ‘involving’ COVID as if they resulted from the disease; the impossibility of defining what a case even is; treating cases, however defined, as if they are this horror, when, for the vast majority of people, they do nothing much beside bringing herd immunity closer. And so on.

  • Funny thing: I searched for this address, something I’ve done many times over the years, always found multiple copies, but this time nothing but excerpts appeared on the first page of results. So I just searched my blog, found the last place I’d linked to, and – got a page from the Center for Theoretical Neuroscience at Columbia, with the speech nowhere in sight. Of course, theoretical neuroscience sounds about as cargo-cultish as one could get, so I can see why they’d not exactly want to feature Feynman’s speech. The Purge, it seems, continues apace.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

5 thoughts on “Science: That Feynman Speech Again”

  1. Did you find the speech in full in the end? Caltech have it – I have kept a link tucked away for many years, but in view of your warning I have downloaded and kept the .pdf (a scan of a magazine article, it seems) this time.

    1. I did find the whole speech, and downloaded a .pdf. I may post it here, to just have one more place people can find it.

      It was remarkable that the link I’d used not only no longer had it, but was to a site the science of which Feynman would no doubt have had issues with.

    1. I’ve been including links to this for many years, and I always just googled and had many options on the first page. Now? Not so much. Also, articles attacking Feynman’s analysis (by psychologists, ‘natch) pop up as well.

  2. Feynman, “Then a method was discovered for separating the ideas—which was to try one to see if it worked, and if it didn’t work, to eliminate it. This method became organized, of course, into science. ”

    Aristotle (Ethics), “If they agree with the facts we should accept them; if they disagree we should consider them mere theories.”

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