Richard Feynman Creates a Simple Method for Telling Science From Pseudoscience (1966)

RichardFeynman-PaineMansionWoods1984_copyrightTamikoThiel_bw

Pho­to by Tamiko Thiel via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

How can we know whether a claim some­one makes is sci­en­tif­ic or not? The ques­tion is of the utmost con­se­quence, as we are sur­round­ed on all sides by claims that sound cred­i­ble, that use the lan­guage of science—and often do so in attempts to refute sci­en­tif­ic con­sen­sus. As we’ve seen in the case of the anti-vac­cine cru­sade, falling vic­tim to pseu­do­sci­en­tif­ic argu­ments can have dire effects. So how can ordi­nary peo­ple, ordi­nary par­ents, and ordi­nary cit­i­zens eval­u­ate such argu­ments?

The prob­lem of demar­ca­tion, or what is and what is not sci­ence, has occu­pied philoso­phers for some time, and the most famous answer comes from philoso­pher of sci­ence Karl Pop­per, who pro­posed his the­o­ry of “fal­si­fi­a­bil­i­ty” in 1963. Accord­ing to Pop­per, an idea is sci­en­tif­ic if it can con­ceiv­ably be proven wrong. Although Popper’s strict def­i­n­i­tion of sci­ence has had its uses over the years, it has also come in for its share of crit­i­cism, since so much accept­ed sci­ence was fal­si­fied in its day (Newton’s grav­i­ta­tion­al the­o­ry, Bohr’s the­o­ry of the atom), and so much cur­rent the­o­ret­i­cal sci­ence can­not be fal­si­fied (string the­o­ry, for exam­ple). What­ev­er the case, the prob­lem for lay peo­ple remains. If a sci­en­tif­ic the­o­ry is beyond our com­pre­hen­sion, it’s unlike­ly we’ll be able to see how it might be dis­proven.

Physi­cist and sci­ence com­mu­ni­ca­tor Richard Feyn­man came up with anoth­er cri­te­ri­on, one that applies direct­ly to the non-sci­en­tist like­ly to be bam­boo­zled by fan­cy ter­mi­nol­o­gy that sounds sci­en­tif­ic. Simon Oxen­ham at Big Think points to the exam­ple of Deep­ak Chopra, who is “infa­mous for mak­ing pro­found sound­ing yet entire­ly mean­ing­less state­ments by abus­ing sci­en­tif­ic lan­guage.” (What Daniel Den­net calls “deep­i­ties.”) As a balm against such state­ments, Oxen­ham refers us to a speech Feyn­man gave in 1966 to a meet­ing of the Nation­al Sci­ence Teach­ers Asso­ci­a­tion. Rather than ask­ing lay peo­ple to con­front sci­en­tif­ic-sound­ing claims on their own terms, Feyn­man would have us trans­late them into ordi­nary lan­guage, there­by assur­ing that what the claim asserts is a log­i­cal con­cept, rather than just a col­lec­tion of jar­gon.

The exam­ple Feyn­man gives comes from the most rudi­men­ta­ry source, a “first grade sci­ence text­book” which “begins in an unfor­tu­nate man­ner to teach sci­ence”: it shows its stu­dent a pic­ture of a “wind­able toy dog,” then a pic­ture of a real dog, then a motor­bike. In each case the stu­dent is asked “What makes it move?” The answer, Feyn­man tells us “was in the teacher’s edi­tion of the book… ‘ener­gy makes it move.’” Few stu­dents would have intu­it­ed such an abstract con­cept, unless they had pre­vi­ous­ly learned the word, which is all the les­son teach­es them. The answer, Feyn­man points out, might as well have been “’God makes it move,’ or ‘Spir­it makes it move,’ or, ‘Mov­abil­i­ty makes it move.’”

Instead, a good sci­ence les­son “should think about what an ordi­nary human being would answer.” Engag­ing with the con­cept of ener­gy in ordi­nary lan­guage enables the stu­dent to explain it, and this, Feyn­man says, con­sti­tutes a test for “whether you have taught an idea or you have only taught a def­i­n­i­tion. Test it this way”:

With­out using the new word which you have just learned, try to rephrase what you have just learned in your own lan­guage. With­out using the word “ener­gy,” tell me what you know now about the dog’s motion.

Feynman’s insis­tence on ordi­nary lan­guage recalls the state­ment attrib­uted to Ein­stein about not real­ly under­stand­ing some­thing unless you can explain it to your grand­moth­er. The method, Feyn­man says, guards against learn­ing “a mys­tic for­mu­la for answer­ing ques­tions,” and Oxen­ham describes it as “a valu­able way of test­ing our­selves on whether we have real­ly learned some­thing, or whether we just think we have learned some­thing.”

It is equal­ly use­ful for test­ing the claims of oth­ers. If some­one can­not explain some­thing in plain Eng­lish, then we should ques­tion whether they real­ly do them­selves under­stand what they pro­fess…. In the words of Feyn­man, “It is pos­si­ble to fol­low form and call it sci­ence, but that is pseu­do­science.”

Does Feynman’s ordi­nary lan­guage test solve the demar­ca­tion prob­lem? No, but if we use it as a guide when con­front­ed with plau­si­ble-sound­ing claims couched in sci­en­tif­ic-sound­ing ver­biage, it can help us either get clar­i­ty or suss out total non­sense. And if any­one would know how sci­en­tists can explain com­pli­cat­ed ideas in plain­ly acces­si­ble ways, Feyn­man would.

via Big Think

Relat­ed Con­tent:

‘The Char­ac­ter of Phys­i­cal Law’: Richard Feynman’s Leg­endary Course Pre­sent­ed at Cor­nell, 1964

The Feyn­man Lec­tures on Physics, The Most Pop­u­lar Physics Book Ever Writ­ten, Now Com­plete­ly Online

Richard Feyn­man Presents Quan­tum Elec­tro­dy­nam­ics for the Non­Sci­en­tist

The Draw­ings & Paint­ings of Richard Feyn­man: Art Express­es a Dra­mat­ic “Feel­ing of Awe”

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


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Comments (20)
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  • Joe says:

    Vac­cines are pseu­do sci­ence…

  • Alan Drabke says:

    Sci­ence ‘for the peo­ple’ is a very dan­ger­ous idea. The IQ bell curve for lawyers over­laps with the curve for home eco­nom­ics majors. Yet lawyers, sim­ple­tons real­ly, are for­ev­er suing doc­tors because doc­tors have yet to invent a phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal with­out side effects. Lawyers might as well demand a per­pet­u­al motion machine from the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal indus­try.

    When Galileo was alive all the books were writ­ten in Latin. In his day, sci­en­tists were all flu­ent in Latin and math­e­mat­ics as the lan­guage of sci­ence. As Shake­speare explained: “First, we kill all the lawyers.” Next, let’s restore math­e­mat­ics as a pre­req­ui­site to a col­lege diplo­ma.

  • Russ D'Italia says:

    I am dis­ap­point­ed in this arti­cle because it was over­sold, or as the arti­cle sums up, “Does Feynman’s ordi­nary lan­guage test solve the demar­ca­tion prob­lem? No.…” But giv­en that the answer to the ques­tion of how we tell the dif­fer­ence between sci­ence and char­la­tans has to be edged up to, rather than def­i­nite­ly stat­ed as a for­mu­la, maybe that tells us some­thing about what sci­ence is. Maybe it is just orga­nized pur­suit of knowl­edge using dif­fer­ent tools and method­olo­gies in dif­fer­ent fields, as required by the hier­ar­chy of priests in that field. I do not use “priests” to be snarky, but when it comes down to it, aren’t we just watch­ing anoint­ed ones declar­ing or dis­put­ing or just mov­ing on to oth­er issues that inter­est them from time to time. The key is that the work they do, if not fal­si­fi­able, is at least pub­lic and sub­ject to repli­ca­tion by oth­ers or crit­i­cism of their meth­ods, log­ic and results.

  • Kevin Schmidt says:

    I notice the US Gov­ern­ment is still pay­ing out hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars to chil­dren who have suf­fered from neg­a­tive reac­tions to vac­cines.

    There are no peer reviewed stud­ies that prove any one vac­cine is both safe and effec­tive over the long term. Not one.

  • Bill Marcy says:

    The Sci­en­tif­ic method requires skep­ti­cism, not beliefs.

  • Kerry Day says:

    is “home eco­nom­ics majors” a dog­whis­tle term for women? Gross. You kin­da destroyed any cred­i­bil­i­ty you might have, right there.

  • .rhavin says:

    “Next, let’s restore math­e­mat­ics as a pre­req­ui­site to a col­lege diplo­ma”

    What coun­try are you from that some­thing so fun­da­men­tal as under­stand­ing math­e­mat­ics is not the pre­req­ui­site to get a diplo­ma?

  • Matthew Taylor says:

    Shame on you. Your type has result­ed in deaths of many chil­dren and the reemer­gence of dis­eases pre­vi­ous­ly under con­trol.

  • Mark N Taylor says:

    Feyn­man may have been influ­enced by the pop­u­lar books of rhetori­cian Rudolf Fleisch and his push for clear think­ing and plain lan­guage in the 50s and 60s.

  • Andy K says:

    Try explain­ing a small proof from the­o­ret­i­cal com­put­er sci­ence or abstract alge­bra using “ordi­nary lan­guage”. You’ll fail. You might be able to give a 30,000 foot view of the larg­er sub­ject area that the proof is from, but explain­ing the proof itself is often impos­si­ble using ordi­nary lan­guage.

  • Roy says:

    You just fol­lowed an arti­cle about one of the great­est sci­en­tif­ic minds of the mod­ern era and his ideas about sci­en­tif­ic thought and lan­guage with a sim­ple-mind­ed, unsub­stan­ti­at­ed opin­ion devoid of any hint of sci­en­tif­ic fact or rea­son­ing.

    Did you not read the arti­cle or were you not able to under­stand it?

  • Prof P C Narasimha Reddy Ph D says:

    Fal­si­fi­ca­tion method is already in force but putting it in sim­ple terms is some what dif­fi­cult. How­ev­er demon­stra­tion to prove itself may need some sci­en­tif­ic advance­ment
    — Prof P C Narasimha Red­dy

  • Julie Biddle says:

    Beware of those who insist that because some­thing isn’t explained in sim­ple lan­guage it can’t be true. A com­mon log­i­cal fal­la­cy that is becom­ing less and less com­mon as our edu­ca­tion stan­dards slip low­er and low­er.

  • Roger Parkinson says:

    Pop­per first pub­lished his ideas in 1934, not 1963. But the 1934 book was in Ger­man so the Eng­lish speak­ing sci­ence com­mu­ni­ty was unaware of it until he trans­lat­ed it and repub­lished. It is a heafty tome, but it is read­able. Most of the peo­ple who dis­miss Pop­per seem not to have read it.

  • blah says:

    Real­ly? here would we go to read more about this mil­lion-dol­lar pay­out sys­tem?

  • Arthur says:

    Com­mu­ni­ca­tion is a sep­a­rate skill from research.
    Feyn­man was a pro­pa­gan­dist and char­la­tan.
    His work is designed to mis­lead and noth­ing more.

  • Julie Biddle says:

    Real­ly?
    Some­thing that has been used for over 1,000 years and has man­aged to erad­i­cate sev­er­al dis­eases that used to kill thou­sands every year is a pseu­do sci­ence?
    smh

  • willshome says:

    What utter bol­locks Joe.

  • Michael Remley says:

    Actu­al­ly, what Ein­stein said was: If you can­not explain some­thing sim­ply, you don’t under­stand it well enough.

  • rev. Dr. Ronald Ryan says:

    You have made Dr. Richard Feyn­man a pros­ti­tute to your mis­un­der­stand­ing of sci­ence. You sup­port con­sen­sus sci­ence; Feyn­man said that con­sen­sus sci­ence is a lie.

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