Some things seem very much like science

A serious problem for science is that it has been incredibly successful, but its difficult for people to understand and not always easy to spot in a crowd.

This results in two traps that a person has to be careful not to fall into. The first is when sciency sounding language gets invoked by people who want to convince you of something whether or not its true. The second is when people genuinely try to emulate superficial aspects of science, but fail to do so with the necessary integrity.

I have already dealt a bit with the first of these traps. The problem is people with an agenda who decide what they want you to believe, and then find ways to convince you its true. They hope that invoking the word ‘science’ will help to sway you to their cause.

For now, though, I want to focus on the second trap. Some people make a genuine effort to understand the world and they see that science has been a successful tool for doing so, but they end up emulating the superficial aspects of science instead of really understanding that it’s a value system, not a procedure, that makes science successful.

A great piece of writing on this topic is Richard Feynman’s 1974 Caltech commencement address. Its short, entertaining, and highly inspiring, so I’ll review some of the best ideas in hopes of convincing you to read it in full.

Feynman discusses a number of fields of study that tend to mix together good science with something a little less respectable: an unwillingness to strive to find the limits of your understanding. He mentions examples from psychology, education, criminal justice, and even experimental science.

Yet these things are said to be scientific. We study them. And I
think ordinary people with commonsense ideas are intimidated by
this pseudoscience. A teacher who has some good idea of how to
teach her children to read is forced by the school system to do it
some other way–or is even fooled by the school system into
thinking that her method is not necessarily a good one. Or a parent
of bad boys, after disciplining them in one way or another, feels
guilty for the rest of her life because she didn’t do “the right
thing,” according to the experts.

So we really ought to look into theories that don’t work, and
science that isn’t science.

Even today, our lives are plagued by ideas that come from this less respectable brand of ‘science’. A couple of modern examples from the field of education: made up data has been influencing education decisions since the 1960’s, and a learning-styles superstition receives widespread acceptance without any good evidence.

It’s easy to get excited by ideas such as the ones mentioned above. They are better ideas than the ‘good enough’ ideas that we develop quite naturally when living our normal lives. So, that’s good. But, they are being widely adopted before people check to see if they are right!

These ideas are shaping our civilization, and they are wrong! Things like that might have flown before the enlightenment, but since we know now how to do a better job, we really ought to.

Feynman tells us part of the solution:

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.

Scientific integrity is about being honest and transparent about what you know, how you know it, and what the limits of your knowledge are. While we tend to be drawn to people who speak with certainty and confidence, even choosing them as our political leaders, they do not have this kind of integrity. People who think they know something absolutely or who deny that there are limits to their understanding of a topic are not respectable, they are fools.

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.

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.

Everywhere, there is pressure on us to give up on our integrity. Not being fooled costs time and money, and our culture has not yet developed an appreciation, generally, for the value that this integrity brings to our ideas. So, your bosses, teachers, and coworkers may not realize why it is important and they may pressure you into giving up your integrity in order to save time or money. So, I reflect Feynman’s wish that you maintain the freedom to keep your integrity.

The most important question a person can ask when evaluating a person’s integrity is:

Was this person invested in a certain outcome before they collected their evidence, or are they honestly just trying to discover what’s true?

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6 thoughts on “Some things seem very much like science

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