Feynman on bad science

A serious section concludes Richard Feynman’s Surely You’re Joking, in which he denounces various forms of bad science. He talks about the pseudoscience of UFOs and reflexology, but also about problems with the work done by credible scientists, such as the bias towards publishing positive results and ignoring negative or inconclusive ones. He raises issues about the quality of school textbooks and the ethics of those who publish and select them. He stresses the importance of retesting your assumptions, properly calibrating new equipment, and providing detailed information on the sources of error you think exist within your experiments. He also provides an important example of scientists fudging their numbers so as not to contradict a famous result.

At the very end, he gives some advice to those who are called upon to provide scientific advice to governments:

I say that’s also important in giving certain types of government advice. Supposing a senator asked you for advice about whether drilling a hole should be done in his state; and you decide it would be better in some other state. If you don’t publish such a result, it seems to me you’re not giving scientific advice. You’re being used. If your answer happens to come out in the direction the government or the politicians like, they can use it as an argument in their favor; if it comes out the other way, they don’t publish it at all. That’s not giving scientific advice.

So I have just one wish for you — the good luck to be somewhere where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have described, and where you do not feel forced by a need to maintain your position in the organization, or financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity. May you have that freedom.

It is a warning that is especially pertinent today – particularly where science and politics collide in relation to environmental issues. The temptation to manipulate the science can be extreme. At the same time, the importance of transmitting scientific conclusions in a way that is both accurate and comprehensible is considerable. Maintaining scientific integrity while also providing accurate and applicable advice is a key ethical and professional requirement for today’s scientists, as well as those on the political and bureaucratic side who work with them.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

16 thoughts on “Feynman on bad science”

  1. Key tips for maintaining your freedom to show integrity:

    1) Don’t get a mortgage.

    2) Don’t have kids.

  2. That’s the discussion of ‘cargo cult science’ isn’t it? I love that essay especially his arguments about not fooling oneself, which is possibly the most important advice a graduate student can receive about their research:
    “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. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.” http://wwwcdf.pd.infn.it/~loreti/science.html
    This is much, much easier said than done, however.

  3. Sarah,

    Not fooling yourself is extremely important. It probably becomes especially difficult when your research has big policy implications. Once you become convinced that your ideas have an important role to play in shaping the behaviour of states, firms, and individuals, you are probably more likely to see only evidence that supports your theories.

  4. Aptly chosen image.

    Phrenology is the very definition of bad ‘science.’

  5. Economic Distress and Fear

    Part of the debtor mentality is a constant, frantically suppressed undercurrent of terror. We have one of the highest debt-to-income ratios in the world, and apparently most of us are two paychecks from the street. Those in power — governments, employers — exploit this, to great effect. Frightened people are obedient — not just physically, but intellectually and emotionally. If your employer tells you to work overtime, and you know that refusing could jeopardize everything you have, then not only do you work the overtime, but you convince yourself that you’re doing it voluntarily, out of loyalty to the company; because the alternative is to acknowledge that you are living in terror. Before you know it, you’ve persuaded yourself that you have a profound emotional attachment to some vast multinational corporation: you’ve indentured not just your working hours, but your entire thought process. The only people who are capable of either unfettered action or unfettered thought are those who — either because they’re heroically brave, or because they’re insane, or because they know themselves to be safe — are free from fear.

  6. Pingback: But if Not
  7. IN MID-DECEMBER 1986 the atmosphere crackled with excitement on university campuses in the central Chinese city of Hefei. Students gathered at campus notice- boards to read hand-written posters calling for freedom and democracy. Some of them invoked the rallying cries of America’s political heroes: “Give me liberty or give me death,” read one.

    Fang Lizhi was the man who had encouraged the students to speak out: the first and, so far, only intellectual in Communist-ruled China whose dissent has spurred the young to challenge party rule. He liked to describe himself as “just a physicist”: a professional star-gazer and long-standing party member who had been vice-president of the University of Science and Technology in Hefei since 1984. But he was far from ordinary. He had assumed, then demanded, freedom from his earliest days in science.

    Scientific inquiry, as he repeatedly, fearlessly wrote and said, needed spirit, ideas, passion and individual integrity. What it did not need was the “guiding role” of Marxist ideology. To attach philosophical pedigrees to scientific theories, usually in order to discredit them, was the method of the Inquisition and the tormentors of Galileo, whose stories he knew well. But that was how science worked in China. If the powers-that-be disliked a theory, they would slap it down with something from Mao’s Book of Quotations. This, said Mr Fang, amounted to blind worship of “some omnipotent Supreme”, and “all of us”—all who, like him, had suffered through China’s cycles of purging and rehabilitation, expelled from teaching post and party and then embraced again—“have direct experience of the Supreme.”

  8. Richard Feynman’s FBI Files Released


    The FBI files of noted physicist, esteemed author and all-around geek Richard Feynman have been released. Feynman and the FBI had an extended encounter after the Bureau discovered he had been invited to speak at the USSR, which set off a flurry of investigations into his loyalty — even as he pestered the State Department for guidance on whether he should or shouldn’t go, guidance they only gave belatedly. Of particular interest to the FBI was his avid devotion to the art of lock picking, his high school membership in a socialism club (for social reasons, he swore), and the fact that he was a godless scientist who loved his bongo drums. Original documents are available. One other element? A seven-page letter detailing a conspiracy theory that Feynman was a sleeper agent for enemies unknown, but probably communist ones.

  9. Nobody wanted to be a legislative budget officer under these conditions. Do the job — give Parliament and Canadians information they have never seen before — and face the wrath of the executive, and it will be the end of your public service career. Don’t do the job — say nice things about the government — and you will face the wrath of the media and Canadians. I took the job when it was agreed that a few amazing and fearless public servants would join — namely, Mostafa Askari and Sahir Khan. We signed in proverbial blood. We vowed to give Canada a true legislative budget office. Nothing less. I chose career suicide. It was a very small price to pay. After all, I had lost a son; I was “out of range.”

  10. “Being completely neutral and independent in the future, however, may only gain us irrelevance. We need, of course, integrity in our analysis – we must be willing to say things that are uncomfortable for the Pentagon or the State Department and that are not compatible with the goals of policymakers. But we should not pretend that integrity and neutrality are the same thing or that they are dependent on each other. Neutrality implies distance from the consumer and some near mystical ability to parse the truth completely free from bias or prejudice. Integrity, on the other hand, rests on professional standards and the willingness to provide the most complete answer to a consumer’s question, even if it is not the answer he wants to hear. Neutrality cannot be used to justify analytic celibacy and disengagement from the consumer. If forced to choose between analytic detachment and impact on policymaking, the 21st century analyst must choose the latter.”

    Medina, Carmen. “What to do when traditional models fail” in Andrew, Christopher et al eds. Secret Intelligence: A Reader. London; Routledge. 2009. p. 113 (paperback)

  11. “The value of intelligence to senior policymakers and to the nation rests to a critical degree on the confidence the process is not corrupt – that intelligence collectors and analysts speak truth to power; however unpalatable it might be at any one time. During the Vietnam War, the Intelligence Community – to its great credit – continued to tell the White House bad news that President Lyndon B. Johnson did not want to hear.

    Intelligence reporting and analysis might or might not be correct, but they must always be honest. If the integrity of the process and product is ever compromised, intelligence will become less than worthless because it will then be unreliable and misleading. Even the suspicion of distortion could be enough to gravely weaken this essential component of national security.”

    Ott, M.C. “Partisanship and the decline of intelligence oversight” (2003) in Andrew, Christopher et al eds. Secret Intelligence: A Reader. London; Routledge. 2009. p. 328 (paperback)

  12. SIR – The solutions you proposed—better statistics, stricter review standards, and so on—will not solve the problem, which at root is cultural and political. Whether the subject is cancer genomics or climate change or education policy, society increasingly expects science to do something beyond its remit, that is, to characterise highly complex systems in terms of unambiguous cause-effect relations that are useful for engineering or decision-making.

    Uncertainty is an inescapable part of life. For many of our most vexing challenges, the path to social betterment lies in the way we organise our institutions and our decision-making, not in the vain hope that better science will tell us what is to be done.

    Daniel Sarewitz
    Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes
    Arizona State University
    Washington, DC

    SIR – The problems of falsified research and data are not limited to researchers seeking publication. Science classes, in schools as well as colleges, encourage data falsification by pinning grades to fitting results. In my experience, it is common practice for students to modify experiments, discard unwanted data and invent data that fit to get better grades. The quest for ethical practices in data analysis must be taught from the ground up.

    Simon Fox
    Berkeley, California  

    SIR – For three decades I studied biomedical science. Your articles summarised well the basis for my decision years ago never to see a doctor, except for emergencies. Given the option of relying for my well-being either on hundreds of thousands of years of objective, biological evolution contained in an organism that is self-maintaining and healing (me), or on advice and treatment from a physician relying on knowledge that, for whatever reason, is probably biased, false and misleading, I choose the former.

    It’s a safer bet (at a level of significance greater than…).

    John Denton
    Professor emeritus
    Eastern Kentucky University
    Richmond, Kentucky

  13. “Skepticism is an important function of policy analysis, even for the ‘‘clients’’ who commission or fund such work. If policy analysis, of whatever kind, does not play this role, then it degenerates into communications or public relations. The relative autonomy of policy analysis, then, is an important element of discerning a policy style, and this should be the case, whether it is an individual, team, professional or even networked activity.”

    Howlett, M., and Lindquist, E. (2004). “Policy analysis and governance: Analytical and policy styles in Canada.” Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis, 6(3): 225–249.

  14. My colleague Stephen Schneider of Stanford University, who died in 2010, used to say that being a scientist-advocate is not an oxymoron. Just because we are scientists does not mean that we should check our citizenship at the door of a public meeting, he would explain. The New Republic once called him a “scientific pugilist” for advocating a forceful approach to global warming. But fighting for scientific truth and an informed debate is nothing to apologize for.

    If scientists choose not to engage in the public debate, we leave a vacuum that will be filled by those whose agenda is one of short-term self-interest. There is a great cost to society if scientists fail to participate in the larger conversation — if we do not do all we can to ensure that the policy debate is informed by an honest assessment of the risks. In fact, it would be an abrogation of our responsibility to society if we remained quiet in the face of such a grave threat.

    This is hardly a radical position. Our Department of Homeland Security has urged citizens to report anything dangerous they witness: “If you see something, say something.” We scientists are citizens, too, and, in climate change, we see a clear and present danger. The public is beginning to see the danger, too — Midwestern farmers struggling with drought, more damaging wildfires out West, and withering record summer heat across the country — while wondering about possible linkages between rapid Arctic warming and strange weather patterns, like the recent outbreak of Arctic air across much of the United States.

    The urgency for action was underscored this past week by a draft United Nations report warning that another 15 years of failure to cut heat-trapping emissions would make the problem virtually impossible to solve with known technologies and thus impose enormous costs on future generations. It confirmed that the sooner we act, the less it will cost.

    How will history judge us if we watch the threat unfold before our eyes, but fail to communicate the urgency of acting to avert potential disaster? How would I explain to the future children of my 8-year-old daughter that their grandfather saw the threat, but didn’t speak up in time?

    Those are the stakes.


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