Lessons From Feynman

May 12, 2012 at 4:35 pm (Miscellaneous) (, , , , , , , , , )

In 1974, Richard Feynman gave a speech at Caltec which was later published, in 1985, in the book Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman. The book chapter was titled Cargo Cult Science and it contained some valuable lessons.

There were lessons on political advice and scientific integrity, advertising, science, and pseudoscience.

Feynman uses an example of advertising in order to compare it to science and, specifically, scientific integrity. The ASA and the skeptical activists who make complaints help to challenge some of the worst excesses of advertising. But advertising perhaps still falls short of the ideals referred to by Feynman. Here’s his summary of the idea of scientific integrity:

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.

In contrast, advertising (as exemplified by the Wesson oil ad Feynman focuses on) conveys the implication, not the fact. The advert claims that Wesson oil doesn’t soak through food – but neglects to mention that “no oils soak through food, if operated at a certain temperature. If operated at another temperature, they all will – including Wesson oil”. That Wesson oil doesn’t soak through food is true – but it’s not the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. There are important omissions.

Feynman argues that telling the whole truth is also important for those representing themselves as scientists and gives an example of advising governments:

If we only publish results of a certain kind, we can make the argument look good. We must publish both kinds of results.

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.

Of course, politicians don’t always make it easy for scientific advisors. As Professor David Nutt could tell you. As Le Canard Noir, author of the Quackometer blog, said at the time: “a sychophantic scientific advisor is no longer a scientist”. Which is pretty much the point Feynman was making in 1974.

Feynman also talks about the difference between science and pseudoscience – science that isn’t science.

In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas – he’s the controller – and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.

…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.

Perhaps these lessons can be boiled down to just one: if you want to gain and spread knowledge, you must pay attention to all the information – even that which is inconvenient. Or perhaps not. Here are some videos of Feynman; I’ll be watching one on scientific method.



  1. Cybertiger said,

    Not crap about Feynman! I thought we were going to get more silly wrongness at the Breakspear Hospital.

  2. mrsP said,

    Thanks for the good links, JDC.

  3. Martin said,

    Can we persuade researchers to be this open? I’m (not) having fun at the moment finding a standard mechanism by which raw data, software and background algorithms can be published along with the peer-reviewed paper. Without this, you’re not getting Feynman’s ideal, and the lack of standard mechanisms is evidence that few if any researchers are doing it.

    So… to take your ‘full picture’ a bit further, it’s a bit unfair to present only half the picture (that advertisers and pseudo-scientists fail to consider the whole picture) and ignore the rest (that the same usually applies to ‘good’ research)

  4. ChrisP said,

    Martin, it depends. Some granting agencies insist that all research conducted with their funding is made available through being deposited on a data base. There are certain problems that can be encountered through doing this. One is that data mining and cherry picking of the data can be employed by others for their own ends.

  5. Paul Lawrence Hayes said,

    “I’m (not) having fun at the moment finding a standard mechanism by which raw data, software and background algorithms can be published along with the peer-reviewed paper.”

    “Reproducible research”. I read this recently: http://www.jstatsoft.org/v46/i03

  6. Martin said,

    Chris, yes some do, most do not (for a dodgily researched value of ‘most’). Again “data mining and cherry picking for their own ends” apply as much to the original researchers as others, and are harder to spot if there are no measures to ensure that *all* the research is made available.

    Paul that looks like a nice little extension, does it mean all research will have to be written up in emacs yeuch!?. But yes more of this; one of the technical problems is finding a way of persisting references to data; you can find a paper by title even if it has moved media over the decades. That is harder with supporting data sets and code, incorporating them into the paper would be just the thing where sensible (not too large, etc)

  7. Paul Lawrence Hayes said,

    “Emacs outshines all other editing software in approximately the same way that the noonday sun does the stars. It is not just bigger and brighter; it simply makes everything else vanish.” – Neal Stephenson.


  8. jdc325 said,


    So… to take your ‘full picture’ a bit further, it’s a bit unfair to present only half the picture (that advertisers and pseudo-scientists fail to consider the whole picture) and ignore the rest (that the same usually applies to ‘good’ research)

    I think Feynman was aiming his talk at scientists and imploring them not to behave like advertisers and purveyors of cargo cult science. I wonder if he did so partly because he didn’t think scientists were living up to his ideal of scientific integrity.

  9. Martin said,

    Possibly; or he was trying to instil in newcomers (the students) the ethos of good scientific investigation. That ethos is not enforced though…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: