“Science is the Belief in the Ignorance of Experts” — Richard Feynman

“Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts,” said the physicist Richard Feynman in a 1966 talk to high-school science teachers. I think he meant science is the belief in the fallibility of experts. In the talk, he says science education should be about data —  how to gather data to test ideas and get new ideas — not about conclusions (“the earth revolves around the sun”). And it should be about pointing out that experts are often wrong. I agree with all this.

However, I think the underlying idea — what Feynman seems to be saying — is simply wrong. Did Darwin come up with his ideas because he believed experts (the Pope?) were wrong? Of course not. Did Mendel do his pea experiments because he didn’t trust experts? Again, of course not. Darwin and Mendel’s work showed that the experts were wrong but that’s not why they did it. Nor do scientists today do their work for that reason. Scientists are themselves experts. Do they do science to reveal their own ignorance? No, that’s blatantly wrong. If science is the belief in the ignorance of experts, and X is the belief in the ignorance of scientists, what is X? Our entire economy is based on expertise. I buy my car from experts in making cars, buy my bread from bread-making experts, and so on. The success of our economy teaches us we can rely on experts. Why should high-school science teachers say otherwise? If we can rely on experts, and science rests on the assumption that we can’t, why do we need scientists? Is Feynman saying experts are wrong 1% of the time, and that’s why we need science?

I think what Feynman actually meant (but didn’t say clearly) is science protects us against self-serving experts. If you want to talk about the protection-against-experts function of science, the heart of the matter isn’t that experts are ignorant or fallible. It is that experts, including scientists, are self-serving. The less certainty in an area, the more experts in that area slant or distort the truth to benefit themselves.  They exaggerate their understanding, for instance. A drug company understates bad side effects. (Calling this “ignorance” is too kind.) This is common, non-obvious, and worth teaching high-school students. Science journalists, who are grown ups and should know better, often completely ignore this. So do other journalists. Science (data collection) is unexpectedly powerful because experts are wrong more often than a naive person would guess. The simplest data collection is to ask for an example.

When Genius by James Gleick (a biography of Feynman) was published, I said it should have been titled Genius Manqué. This puzzled my friends. Feynman was a genius, I said, but lots of geniuses have had a bigger effect on the world. I heard Feynman himself describe how he came to invent Feynman diagrams. One day, when he was a graduate student. his advisor, John Wheeler, phoned him. “Dick,” he said, “do you know why all electrons have the same charge? Because they’re the same electron.” One electron moves forward and backward in time creating all the electrons we observe. Feynman diagrams came from this idea. The Feynman Lectures on Physics were a big improvement over standard physics books — more emotional, more vivid, more thought-provoking — but contain far too little about data, in my opinion. Feynman failed to do what he told high school teachers to do.

3 Replies to ““Science is the Belief in the Ignorance of Experts” — Richard Feynman”

  1. “science education should be about data – not about conclusions” He did enjoy saying silly things to tease the scientific bourgeoisie.

    I suppose the proposition that science education should be about data, and conjectures, and hypotheses,and theories, and conclusions, and refutations, and scientific history, and ….
    was just too humdrum to say.

  2. I think Feynman just fundamentally did not trust experts, authority, teachers, other scientists, etc. He was an extreme case. On his chalkboard at the time of his death he had written “What I cannot create I do not understand” and “Know how to solve every problem that has been solved”. He felt the need to derive everything for himself. Heck, he didn’t even trusts dentists. He thought brushing your teeth was superstition.

    Seth: Yet he bought meat from meat experts, clothes from clothes experts, electricity from electricity experts, and so on. He flew on planes flown by flying experts. He trusted them with his money and safety. I suppose if I had said this to him he would have said something like “expertise expands to fill areas of ignorance.”

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