Thursday, October 12, 2017

Feynman: Science "Proves" Nothing, Discovers Everything

(This blog entry is part two of a half-dozen reflections that steal teaching ideas from Richard Feynman, the Nobel Laureate physicist, atomic bomb developer, colorful personality, and pretty darn good teacher.)

Some think the strength of science is that "it" speaks in authoritative absolutes. Or that "it" PROVES things. It is not uncommon to hear science conjured in almost anthropomorphic, if not completely deified tones:"Science has proven that...!" As if science has a sentient agency.

Feynman looks at science in a remarkably different way, but a way which, if given proper reflection, does not diminish the power of science - but highlights its strengths. He makes a few distinctions in his view that may help us "laymen" have a greater appreciation for science and scientists.

  • First, he acknowledges that SCIENCE doesn't really DO anything - but rather, science is a description of the actions of SCIENTISTS.
  • Second, he points out that one of the main jobs of scientists is GUESSING. 
  • Third, he finds epistemological authority to rest in the RESULTS, not the scientist.
  • Fourth, he admits that the scientist doesn't PROVE things - and indeed, doesn't set out to prove anything. Rather, the scientist seeks to DISPROVE his own hypothesis. (Which is a primary strength of the scientific method!)
Note these comments in Feynman's lecture below:

"Now I’m going to discuss how we would look for a new law. In general, we look for a new law by the following process. First, we guess it (audience laughter), no, don’t laugh, that’s the truth. Then we compute the consequences of the guess, to see what, if this is right, if this law we guess is right, to see what it would imply and then we compare the computation results to nature or we say compare to experiment or experience, compare it directly with observations to see if it works. If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn’t make any difference how beautiful your guess is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are who made the guess, or what his name is … If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it."


This humble approach is far from the booming voice of authoritarian edicts often associated with scientific statements. But it is more productive. It invites knowledge and opens minds rather than shutting down conversations. It is also more realistic; it acknowledges our remaining ignorance, but frames it as a frontier for discovery. It sets us on a path of exploring the wondrous unknown. The "know-it-all" attitude has a chilling effect on gaining knowledge, but the "Feynman attitude" is a useful approach in all disciplines.
"We can imagine that this complicated array of moving things which constitutes 'the world' is something like a great chess game being played by the gods, and we are observers of the game. We do not know what the rules of the game are; all we are allowed to do is to watch the playing. Of course, if we watch long enough, we may eventually catch on to a few of the rules." (Richard Feynman, The Feynman Lectures on Physics)

*Recommended companion readings: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn; Against Method, Paul Feyerabend;  The Order of Things, Michel Foucault.

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