Richard Feynman on Cargo Cult Science and the Importance of Integrity

Richard Feynman’s Caltech commencement address given in 1974 is titled “Cargo Cult Science.” In it, he describes his experience in experimenting with various pseudoscience trends (extrasensory perception, PSI phenomena, and so on) and explains the difference between this “cargo cult science” and real science. It’s a fascinating read in its entirety. The story actually appears in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character), which I highly recommend reading.

One notable passage I wanted to highlight was Feynman recounting of an experiment that was excellent scientific work:

There have been many experiments running rats through all kinds of mazes, and so on–with little clear result. But in 1937 a man named Young did a very interesting one. He had a long corridor with doors all along one side where the rats came in, and doors along the other side where the food was. He wanted to see if he could train the rats to go in at the third door down from wherever he started them off. No. The rats went immediately to the door where the food had been the time before.

The question was, how did the rats know, because the corridor was so beautifully built and so uniform, that this was the same door as before? Obviously there was something about the door that was different from the other doors. So he painted the doors very carefully, arranging the textures on the faces of the doors exactly the same. Still the rats could tell. Then he thought maybe the rats were smelling the food, so he used chemicals to change the smell after each run. Still the rats could tell. Then he realized the rats might be able to tell by seeing the lights and the arrangement in the laboratory like any commonsense person. So he covered the corridor, and still the rats could tell.

He finally found that they could tell by the way the floor sounded when they ran over it. And he could only fix that by putting his corridor in sand. So he covered one after another of all possible clues and finally was able to fool the rats so that they had to learn to go in the third door. If he relaxed any of his conditions, the rats could tell.

Now, from a scientific standpoint, that is an A-number-one experiment. That is the experiment that makes rat-running experiments sensible, because it uncovers that clues that the rat is really using– not what you think it’s using. And that is the experiment that tells exactly what conditions you have to use in order to be careful and control everything in an experiment with rat-running.

I looked up the subsequent history of this research. The next experiment, and the one after that, never referred to Mr. Young. They never used any of his criteria of putting the corridor on sand, or being very careful. They just went right on running the rats in the same old way, and paid no attention to the great discoveries of Mr. Young, and his papers are not referred to, because he didn’t discover anything about the rats. In fact, he discovered all the things you have to do to discover something about rats. But not paying attention to experiments like that is a characteristic example of cargo cult science.

Feynman’s closing remark on what is truly important—no matter where you work—is your integrity. Because that’s something that cannot be taken away from you:

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.

Fascinating read.

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Further reading: why Richard Feynman is my favourite scientist.

(via @Longform)

The Feynman Lectures on Physics: Free Online

This is an incredibly generous endeavor by Caltech: they have published The Feynman Lectures on Physics in HTML format, available for free:

Caltech and The Feynman Lectures Website are pleased to present this online edition of The Feynman Lectures on Physics. Now, anyone with internet access and a web browser can enjoy reading a high-quality up-to-date copy of Feynman’s legendary lectures. This edition has been designed for ease of reading on devices of any size or shape; text, figures and equations can all be zoomed without degradation.

Amazing.

Get your fix of Volume I.

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Notes:

1) If you’re wondering, the hardcover set of the lectures goes for around $180 on Amazon.

2) Read why Richard Feynman is my favourite scientist.

Richard Feynman on Why Questions

I’ve previously written that Richard Feynman is my favorite scientist. In the video below, an interviewer asks Richard Feynman why magnets behave as they do. Feynman, initially perplexed, then goes on to explain what the interviewer observes. But more importantly, with magnificent brilliance, Feynman muses on the dangers and difficulty (not to mention, the inherent assumptions) of so-called “Why Questions”:

Transcript follows:

Interviewer: If you get hold of two magnets, and you push them, you can feel this pushing between them. Turn them around the other way, and they slam together. Now, what is it, the feeling between those two magnets?

Feynman: What do you mean, “What’s the feeling between the two magnets?”

Interviewer: There’s something there, isn’t there? The sensation is that there’s something there when you push these two magnets together.

Feynman: Listen to my question. What is the meaning when you say that there’s a feeling? Of course you feel it. Now what do you want to know?

Interviewer: What I want to know is what’s going on between these two bits of metal?

Feynman: They repel each other.

Interviewer: What does that mean, or why are they doing that, or how are they doing that? I think that’s a perfectly reasonable question.

Feynman: Of course, it’s an excellent question. But the problem, you see, when you ask why something happens, how does a person answer why something happens? For example, Aunt Minnie is in the hospital. Why? Because she went out, slipped on the ice, and broke her hip. That satisfies people. It satisfies, but it wouldn’t satisfy someone who came from another planet and who knew nothing about why when you break your hip do you go to the hospital. How do you get to the hospital when the hip is broken? Well, because her husband, seeing that her hip was broken, called the hospital up and sent somebody to get her. All that is understood by people. And when you explain a why, you have to be in some framework that you allow something to be true. Otherwise, you’re perpetually asking why. Why did the husband call up the hospital? Because the husband is interested in his wife’s welfare. Not always, some husbands aren’t interested in their wives’ welfare when they’re drunk, and they’re angry.

And you begin to get a very interesting understanding of the world and all its complications. If you try to follow anything up, you go deeper and deeper in various directions. For example, if you go, “Why did she slip on the ice?” Well, ice is slippery. Everybody knows that, no problem. But you ask why is ice slippery? That’s kinda curious. Ice is extremely slippery. It’s very interesting. You say, how does it work? You could either say, “I’m satisfied that you’ve answered me. Ice is slippery; that explains it,” or you could go on and say, “Why is ice slippery?” and then you’re involved with something, because there aren’t many things as slippery as ice. It’s very hard to get greasy stuff, but that’s sort of wet and slimy. But a solid that’s so slippery? Because it is, in the case of ice, when you stand on it (they say) momentarily the pressure melts the ice a little bit so you get a sort of instantaneous water surface on which you’re slipping. Why on ice and not on other things? Because water expands when it freezes, so the pressure tries to undo the expansion and melts it. It’s capable of melting, but other substances get cracked when they’re freezing, and when you push them they’re satisfied to be solid.

Why does water expand when it freezes and other substances don’t? I’m not answering your question, but I’m telling you how difficult the why question is. You have to know what it is that you’re permitted to understand and allow to be understood and known, and what it is you’re not. You’ll notice, in this example, that the more I ask why, the deeper a thing is, the more interesting it gets. We could even go further and say, “Why did she fall down when she slipped?” It has to do with gravity, involves all the planets and everything else. Never mind! It goes on and on. And when you’re asked, for example, why two magnets repel, there are many different levels. It depends on whether you’re a student of physics, or an ordinary person who doesn’t know anything. If you’re somebody who doesn’t know anything at all about it, all I can say is the magnetic force makes them repel, and that you’re feeling that force.

You say, “That’s very strange, because I don’t feel kind of force like that in other circumstances.” When you turn them the other way, they attract. There’s a very analogous force, electrical force, which is the same kind of a question, that’s also very weird. But you’re not at all disturbed by the fact that when you put your hand on a chair, it pushes you back. But we found out by looking at it that that’s the same force, as a matter of fact (an electrical force, not magnetic exactly, in that case). But it’s the same electric repulsions that are involved in keeping your finger away from the chair because it’s electrical forces in minor and microscopic details. There’s other forces involved, connected to electrical forces. It turns out that the magnetic and electrical force with which I wish to explain this repulsion in the first place is what ultimately is the deeper thing that we have to start with to explain many other things that everybody would just accept. You know you can’t put your hand through the chair; that’s taken for granted. But that you can’t put your hand through the chair, when looked at more closely, why, involves the same repulsive forces that appear in magnets. The situation you then have to explain is why, in magnets, it goes over a bigger distance than ordinarily. There it has to do with the fact that in iron all the electrons are spinning in the same direction, they all get lined up, and they magnify the effect of the force ’til it’s large enough, at a distance, that you can feel it. But it’s a force which is present all the time and very common and is a basic force of almost – I mean, I could go a little further back if I went more technical – but on an early level I’ve just got to tell you that’s going to be one of the things you’ll just have to take as an element of the world: the existence of magnetic repulsion, or electrical attraction, magnetic attraction.

I can’t explain that attraction in terms of anything else that’s familiar to you. For example, if we said the magnets attract like if rubber bands, I would be cheating you. Because they’re not connected by rubber bands. I’d soon be in trouble. And secondly, if you were curious enough, you’d ask me why rubber bands tend to pull back together again, and I would end up explaining that in terms of electrical forces, which are the very things that I’m trying to use the rubber bands to explain. So I have cheated very badly, you see. So I am not going to be able to give you an answer to why magnets attract each other except to tell you that they do. And to tell you that that’s one of the elements in the world – there are electrical forces, magnetic forces, gravitational forces, and others, and those are some of the parts. If you were a student, I could go further. I could tell you that the magnetic forces are related to the electrical forces very intimately, that the relationship between the gravity forces and electrical forces remains unknown, and so on. But I really can’t do a good job, any job, of explaining magnetic force in terms of something else you’re more familiar with, because I don’t understand it in terms of anything else that you’re more familiar with.

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(Hat tip to Less Wrong for the transcript)

On Medals, Prizes, and Honors

In this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, in a piece titled “The Truth About Being a Hero,” Karl Marlantes writes about his time in the Vietnam War. The excerpt is from his upcoming book, What It Is Like To Go To War. I encourage you to read the whole thing. My biggest takeaway was Marlantes’s view on what it takes to get a medal (and how much luck is involved):

Medals are all mixed up with hierarchy, politics and even job descriptions. What is considered normal activity for an infantry grunt, and therefore not worthy of a medal, is likely to be viewed as extraordinary for someone who does the same thing but isn’t a grunt, so he gets a medal and maybe an article in Stars and Stripes.

I got my medals, in part, because I did brave acts, but also, in part, because the kids liked me and they spent time writing better eyewitness accounts than they would have written if they hadn’t liked me. Had I been an unpopular officer and done exactly the same things, few would have bothered, if any. The accounts would have been laconic, at best, and the medals probably of a lower order. The only people who will ever know the value of the ribbons on their chests are the people wearing them—and even they can fool themselves, in both directions.

He goes on to say: “I was eager for medals early on, but after a while I was no longer so anxious to get one of any kind. But the same phenomenon of being taken over by something, or someone, still seemed to operate.”

Now, compare Karl Marlantes’s words to those of Richard Feynman, my favourite scientist:

In the above video, Feynman explains how he doesn’t much (or at all) care for prizes. The true prize is the pleasure of finding things out, the observation other people are listening and using your discovery. As Feynman notes, those are the real things; the honors are unreal.

Richard Feynman, Superstar Scientist

Richard Feynman is my favourite scientist.

But this wasn’t the case until I ended up going to graduate school at California Institute of Technology. While studying at Caltech, I often came to the school’s bookstore and read for about an hour or so every morning. They had a huge section devoted to Richard Feynman (after all, Feynman taught at Caltech for most of his career). Over a span of a few months, I ended up reading several books by Richard Feynman. My favourite is probably What Do You Care What Other People Think?. Reading Feynman’s books, I began to appreciate that this wasn’t an ordinary scientist. He wanted to make a connection to everything he did, he wanted to understand how the world worked, and most importantly, he cared about the world he lived in and the people he met.

In the latest issue of The New York Review of Books, Freeman Dyson reviews two new books about Richard Feynman: Feynman (to be released in August 2011) by Jim Ottaviani and Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science by Lawrence M. Krauss. I haven’t read either of those books, while they do look compelling.

The overall summary provided by Dyson is excellent, even if I already knew much about Feynman’s history, and, for me, there wasn’t much new in the article. However, something that did stand out was this notion of “superstar scientist”:

Two new books now raise the question of whether Richard Feynman is rising to the status of superstar. The two books are very different in style and in substance. Lawrence Krauss’s book, Quantum Man, is a narrative of Feynman’s life as a scientist, skipping lightly over the personal adventures that have been emphasized in earlier biographies. Krauss succeeds in explaining in nontechnical language the essential core of Feynman’s thinking. Unlike any previous biographer, he takes the reader inside Feynman’s head and reconstructs the picture of nature as Feynman saw it. This is a new kind of scientific history, and Krauss is well qualified to write it, being an expert physicist and a gifted writer of scientific books for the general public.Quantum Man shows us the side of Feynman’s personality that was least visible to most of his admirers, the silent and persistent calculator working intensely through long days and nights to figure out how nature works.

If you had asked me to name superstar scientists in high school: Einstein, Millikan, Newton, M. Curie, and Bohr would have made the list. We didn’t learn about Feynman, unfortunately. But if you ask me today, then without hesitation, Feynman would be on my list of superstar scientists.

The entire summary is worth reading if you aren’t familiar with Feynman’s life. Absolutely have to agree with this, even if Feynman downplayed his exposure in his books (he served on the commission which sought to investigate the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster):

Feynman’s dramatic exposure of NASA incompetence and his O-ring demonstrations made him a hero to the general public. The event was the beginning of his rise to the status of superstar. Before his service on theChallenger commission, he was widely admired by knowledgeable people as a scientist and a colorful character. Afterward, he was admired by a much wider public, as a crusader for honesty and plain speaking in government. Anyone fighting secrecy and corruption in any part of the government could look to Feynman as a leader

This last tidbit was new to me and is some wonderful advice:

He [Richard Feynman] never showed the slightest resentment when I published some of his ideas before he did. He told me that he avoided disputes about priority in science by following a simple rule: “Always give the bastards more credit than they deserve.”