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Science doesn't teach anything; experience teaches it.
June 1, 2013 8:05 AM   Subscribe

I think we live in an unscientific age in which almost all the buffeting of communications and television--words, books, and so on--are unscientific. As a result, there is a considerable amount of intellectual tyranny in the name of science. [...] Science alone of all the subjects contains within itself the lesson of the danger of belief in the infallibility of the greatest teachers of the preceding generation. What is Science?, a lecture by Richard Feynman.
posted by Rory Marinich (84 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite

 
Science is faith. Much of what later scientists do is believing, on faith, the prior "proven facts" and building on them.

And for the rest of us, we do no experiments, assume the results we read about and watch reports about are true, as do the journalists who write about the science they cover.

Take for example, an article entitled "Higgs Boson Discovered." How could the journalist know it was true. Yet we read it and believe it.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:43 AM on June 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


Thanks for posting this Rory Marinich! How ordinary people THINK about science is pretty unhelpful.
I got my son books by Richard Feynman at a critical age, he was roughly 13. I think reading his books and discussing them was very good for him.
I really miss Richard Feynman's presence on the planet. Never met or knew him, just knowing there are people like him is special.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 8:46 AM on June 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Those people who have for years been insisting (in the face of all obvious evidence to the contrary) that the male and female are equally capable of rational thought may have something.

I know Feynman had a reputation as a womanizer, but was this kind of thing common in his lectures, or is he just being arch?
posted by Demogorgon at 8:57 AM on June 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Science is faith. Much of what later scientists do is believing, on faith, the prior "proven facts" and building on them.

No. Science is not faith.

Science adjusts its views based on what is observed. Faith is the denial of observation so that belief can be preserved.

Science is not magic, and not faith - it's just a method. A systematic method for carefully and thoroughly observing nature and using consistent logic to evaluate results.

Science keeps the stuff that works, and discards the stuff that doesn't, and is constantly changing and refining.

I'm not sure we really need another word to describe this other than science, but I do know that faith is not that word.
posted by lazaruslong at 8:57 AM on June 1, 2013 [90 favorites]


This is where he really hits it, head on:

You must here distinguish--especially in teaching--the science from the forms or procedures that are sometimes used in developing science. It is easy to say, "We write, experiment, and observe, and do this or that." You can copy that form exactly. But great religions are dissipated by following form without remembering the direct content of the teaching of the great leaders. In the same way, it is possible to follow form and call it science, but that is pseudo-science. In this way, we all suffer from the kind of tyranny we have today in the many institutions that have come under the influence of pseudoscientific advisers.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:57 AM on June 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'm not sure we really need another word to describe this other than science, but I do know that faith is not that word.

can i have more favorites to give to this?
posted by sexyrobot at 9:06 AM on June 1, 2013 [6 favorites]


Science adjusts its views based on what is observed. Faith is the denial of observation so that belief can be preserved.

There is no thing called "Science" in the way you describe it. You are anthropromorphizing it, creating a false collective of all scientific knowledge into a "Science" that can remember and do things. Yet only humans can remember or do.

This is the point he is making: being aware of scientific discoveries and saying "science has learned" is not science, but pseudo-science and it is a tyranny. What Fenyman calls science is personal observation.

And 99% of the people posting photos of DeGrasse Tyson with quotes and knocking fundies of various stripes are only arguing their book is better. Have they done any of the experiments? If they are lucky, a few in school. But their belief in black holes or neutron stars isn't from personal reviewing of the data or completing of the equations describing such things. They are taking on faith, from books, that these things exist.

And I am certain they do. But I know that certainty comes from faith that the words on the page are true.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:06 AM on June 1, 2013 [9 favorites]


Real, hard science is not faith. An infinitesimal percentage of people on this planet conduct hard science. A very slightly larger percentage of people can look at the written results and say with understanding, "Yeah, that looks right." The overwhelming majority of us must take it on faith.
posted by Longtime Listener at 9:06 AM on June 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


Ironmouth, I was attempting to address your direct point about science being faith. If you would read the rest of my comment, you'll see that I also described science as nothing more than a method. I'm not sure why you want to cherry pick, but the point remains:

Science is not Faith.
posted by lazaruslong at 9:14 AM on June 1, 2013 [14 favorites]


Science is faith. Much of what later scientists do is believing, on faith, the prior "proven facts" and building on them.

Without college sophmores, the Internet would be about half as full of crap as it currently is.
posted by DU at 9:16 AM on June 1, 2013 [12 favorites]


If the entire thing is too long this sentence is near the end:

And that is what science is: the result of the discovery that it is worthwhile rechecking by new direct experience, and not necessarily trusting the [human] race['s] experience from the past. I see it that way. That is my best definition.


This is customized for schoolteachers. In the Lectures on Physics customized for physicists he said:

The test of all knowledge is experiment. Experiment is the sole judge of scientific truth.

I like that one a lot better. On a completely unrelated note I googlemapped Tuva and there are only two roads in the whole country (er, republic) and there aren't any streetview shots yet. The one thing I wish Feynman could have learned before he died is the latest anthropology and genetics results from central Asia, like Denisova hominin. He might have gotten a bigger kick out of that than the Higgs boson.
posted by bukvich at 9:22 AM on June 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Ironmouth, I was attempting to address your direct point about science being faith. If you would read the rest of my comment, you'll see that I also described science as nothing more than a method. I'm not sure why you want to cherry pick, but the point remains:

Science is not Faith.


You mistake what Fenyman calls "the scientific worldview" for science. The scientific worldview is very useful. But almost everyone one of us, other than currently practicing scientists in their field, is merely a faithful believer in that world view. In fact, every scientist also has faith in this world view for every scientific fact they do not know.

Put another way, how do you know of the "scientific method?" Is it from your years of doing physics experiments at Cal Tech? No. It is because you read a book that said there was a scientific method and you believed it.

Science is faith. Much of what later scientists do is believing, on faith, the prior "proven facts" and building on them.

Without college sophmores, the Internet would be about half as full of crap as it currently is.


Unless you think Fenyman here is a college sophomore, you didn't read the article.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:23 AM on June 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


*ahem*

I think he may have been referring to you, Ironmouth.
posted by Rory Marinich at 9:25 AM on June 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


*ahem*

I think he may have been referring to you, Ironmouth.


Obviously.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:27 AM on June 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Science is a method of developing tools based on knowledge, not a method for determining the truth. By analogy, Mathematics develops logic based tools and engineering produces physical tools (with a tool defined as something that extends or enhances your abilities).
posted by 445supermag at 9:29 AM on June 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


Put another way, how do you know of the "scientific method?" Is it from your years of doing physics experiments at Cal Tech? No. It is because you read a book that said there was a scientific method and you believed it.

This is a pretty bizarre line of reasoning, kind of solipsist mixed with...something, and I'm not sure what angle to try and dig in with here. I think I'll drop this weird Science is Faith derail and go back to enjoying Feynman. He's a treasure.
posted by lazaruslong at 9:29 AM on June 1, 2013 [6 favorites]


It seems like what is being discussed here is science versus promulgation of science. The scientific method is practiced by a few, who operate at the boundaries of an expanding envelope of knowledge. Their results and conclusions are peer reviewed as part of the scientific process and add to the body of knowledge or are rejected (though this is oversimpliying a bit). The body of knowledge is then drawn on to educate the rest of humanity, the 'faith' element comes in here since the people being taught have to take much on faith, ie they will never test the underlying hypotheses, etc. You could argue that this is not really faith, since there is a fair amount of the system which keeps things honest, but it can look that way. You could also argue that we have to have faith in this system working to keep things honest.
posted by biffa at 9:35 AM on June 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think I'll drop this weird Science is Faith derail and go back to enjoying Feynman. He's a treasure.

But that's the point of the article he wrote that you are enjoying--that teaching science is teaching observation and that previously stored up "scientific truths" are just things that have to be tested.

He's really on point here:
When someone says, "Science teaches such and such," he is using the word incorrectly. Science doesn't teach anything; experience teaches it. If they say to you, "Science has shown such and such," you might ask, "How does science show it? How did the scientists find out? How? What? Where?"

It should not be "science has shown" but "this experiment, this effect, has shown." And you have as much right as anyone else, upon hearing about the experiments--but be patient and listen to all the evidence--to judge whether a sensible conclusion has been arrived at.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:38 AM on June 1, 2013 [5 favorites]


A lot of this argument sounds like rich plate-o-beans territory. It is parsing things and describing small aspects of things and then defending it when someone else doesn't have exactly the same mindset in looking at it.

Obviously the act of applying scientific methods is not the same thing as faith, and obviously unless you are able to independently verify every step in every thing, you do take for granted (perhaps even on faith) that what has been told to you is at least somewhat accurate. But, that is not the same type of faith as say, someone who says God does this for that reason. The 'faith' born out of the process of doing 'science' can be verified independently, by people who have little or nothing to do with one another, who may share radically different political or economic or XYZ philosophies with one another, and that is what underpins the trust placed in the system. Not because one or two or a dozen closely intertwined people say so.
I take it on "faith" that the earth is not flat the moon is real and that my car does not run on magic... because well.. enough people without a vested interest otherwise have already verified it for me.
posted by edgeways at 9:39 AM on June 1, 2013 [7 favorites]


Mongolian traditional art of khoomi.

This is the coolest thing I have ever seen on the internet. I know what I'm doing in the shower this afternoon.
posted by bukvich at 9:41 AM on June 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


The scientific worldview is very useful. But almost everyone one of us, other than currently practicing scientists in their field, is merely a faithful believer in that world view. In fact, every scientist also has faith in this world view for every scientific fact they do not know.

Just stop. Science works whether you believe in it or not. The GPS on your phone does not depend on your faith in the theory of relativity. Your computer does not operate on faith in computer science. Cochlear implants do not rely on faith in science. The drugs you are prescribed are not based on what we hope to be true, but on everything we currently know, and that's the best we can ever get. That is not a coincidence. All of these things operate because they respect the known rules of the known universe, not because you or anyone else thinks good thoughts about science.

Faith defends the absence of evidence. Science defends nothing and demands evidence for everything. They literally have nothing in common.
posted by tripping daisy at 9:43 AM on June 1, 2013 [31 favorites]


Science: It Works, Bitches.
posted by lazaruslong at 9:51 AM on June 1, 2013 [11 favorites]


But I know that certainty comes from faith that the words on the page are true.

If that's true, you're doing it wrong.

There are a whole lot of heuristics that one can use to establish the relative reliability of sources, but one should always have at least a smidgen of doubt that anything you read is at least partially or even entirely false, and the less that you understand it, the less you should rely on it being true.

If you don't know what a higgs boson is, if you don't understand the theory behind it, then how can you in any meaningful sense 'know' whether it exists or not, no matter how many people attest to its existence?

Don't accept anything scientists say, even a lot of scientists, on faith. You should accept it provisionally at best.

That said, in a practical sense, one can rarely go far wrong by just relying on the testimony of scientists, because they tend to be fairly reliable in aggregate, even if you'd be better served by actually learning the underlying math and science yourself if you want to know the real truth.
posted by empath at 9:54 AM on June 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


The test of all knowledge is experiment. Experiment is the sole judge of scientific truth.

Since Feynman's main claim to fame is novel theoretical ways to remove formal mathematical singularities from QED, you can't read this comment naively. QED itself existing long before any real way to measure whether it was a good physical theory.

Science: It Works, Bitches.

really? that's manages to be both crass and idiotic in ways that boggle me.

That said, in a practical sense, one can rarely go far wrong by just relying on the testimony of scientists...

testify!
posted by ennui.bz at 9:55 AM on June 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


Since Feynman's main claim to fame is novel theoretical ways to remove formal mathematical singularities from QED, you can't read this comment naively. QED itself existing long before any real way to measure whether it was a good physical theory.

Right, but if it didn't match with experiment, it wouldn't have been a good theory, or the truth. One can come up with lots of toy universes that work well mathematically that don't reflect reality.
posted by empath at 9:57 AM on June 1, 2013


Any "scientist" who believes in the infallibility of scientists is doing it wrong.

Science is faith.

That tired old falsehood is only said by people who don't actually get what science is or else they want to troll people who do.
posted by Decani at 9:58 AM on June 1, 2013 [14 favorites]


really? that's manages to be both crass and idiotic in ways that boggle me.

Oh, lighten up. It's an old, old, old reference.
posted by lazaruslong at 9:58 AM on June 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


All of these things operate because they respect the known rules of the known universe

There are no "known rules of the known universe." They are not rules! They are hypothoses only! In the last 113 years every "known rule" of the universe was overturned significantly. And the people who believed those rules were basing that belief upon scientific observation that was proved in error.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:01 AM on June 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ironmouth:"And I am certain they do. But I know that certainty comes from faith that the words on the page are true."

I believe you are projecting when you use the word faith. You may have faith that the words on the page are true, others of us trust that those words are true. Much like I trust democratically elected officials to, on balance, not be despotic I fall far short of having faith in such outcome.
posted by tvjunkie at 10:02 AM on June 1, 2013


Any "scientist" who believes in the infallibility of scientists is doing it wrong.

Science is faith.

That tired old falsehood is only said by people who don't actually get what science is or else they want to troll people who do.


99% of people take current scientific "truths" on faith. That's the point of the article.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:03 AM on June 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is a stupid and trolling derail from a good post.
posted by kiltedtaco at 10:03 AM on June 1, 2013 [15 favorites]


Science isn't faith, but it's not this pure process of running experiments to disprove bad hypotheses either, nor is it just doing things that "work, bitches." Scientists study things that happened millions or billions of years ago, for example. And they compete for grant funding by churning out publications. There's more to life than having contempt for religious faith.
posted by leopard at 10:05 AM on June 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


“You can't know anything,
Knowledge is merely opinion”
She opines, over her Cabernet Sauvignon
Vis a vis
Some unhippily
Empirical comment by me

“Not a good start” I think
We're only on pre-dinner drinks
And across the room, my wife
Widens her eyes
Silently begs me, Be Nice
A matrimonial warning
Not worth ignoring
So I resist the urge to ask Storm
Whether knowledge is so loose-weave
Of a morning
When deciding whether to leave
Her apartment by the front door
Or a window on the second floor.

posted by lazaruslong at 10:05 AM on June 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


The more times I read Feynman, the more I wish someone had recorded an interview with his father.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:06 AM on June 1, 2013 [5 favorites]


I really love the short videos of Feynman talking about things and concepts in science, especially the ones where he's just sitting in that big armchair talkin'.

Kottke has collected quite a lot of them over the years, it's easy to get lost in them over there.
posted by lazaruslong at 10:09 AM on June 1, 2013




Oh, lighten up. It's an old, old, old reference.
posted by lazaruslong at 5:58 PM on June 1 [1 favorite +] [!]


Relevant.
posted by Decani at 10:10 AM on June 1, 2013


In the last 113 years every "known rule" of the universe was overturned significantly. And the people who believed those rules were basing that belief upon scientific observation that was proved in error.

No, people understood those rules as the current model for our universe which understandably improved along with our technology. However, it's important to note that it didn't improve because people believed in science. It improved because people practiced science. If they had been practicing faith instead, a lot less would have changed, because they would all be defending the old theories despite evidence of better theories, better explanations, and better evidence.

The foundation of faith is belief in the absence of evidence. For no reason whatsoever, you have faith that you will win the lottery, or score in a football game, or recover from an illness. The practice of science does not accept wish-thinking as reality. That's why science works so well.

You can project the shortcomings of human hubris to people who practice science, obviously, but not the principles. They are completely different.
posted by tripping daisy at 10:22 AM on June 1, 2013 [6 favorites]


Science is faith. Much of what later scientists do is believing, on faith, the prior "proven facts" and building on them.

There's simply no way to backtrack from this derailing opening statement, which is wrong in every way about science and how scientists properly conduct their work. It could be corrected, however, by the simple application of the prefix "pseudo". It would then describe perfectly such dead ends in the quest for understanding as Ptolemaic cosmology, humoralist medicine, phrenology, homeopathy, Intelligent Design, etcetera, etcetera.

And for the rest of us, we do no experiments, assume the results we read about and watch reports about are true, as do the journalists who write about the science they cover.

One of the many features that distinguishes the MeFi community from other Internet forums is that we have enough informed members to back up intelligently our skeptical tendencies (and call out sophomoric contrarianism). FPPs on news that would elsewhere go unchallenged are strenuously wrung through the communal BS detector.

If one must introduce the concept of "belief" at all into the discussion of science, then Feynman put it elsewhere in the article: "Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts."
posted by Doktor Zed at 10:23 AM on June 1, 2013 [6 favorites]


! In the last 113 years every "known rule" of the universe was overturned significantly

They weren't exactly overturned, so much as generally being shown to be emergent properties of more sophisticated underlying mechanics. Newtonian physics works perfectly well within certain limits.

Really, the past 200 years or so has largely been a process of filling in gaps, even relativity for example, was a direct consequence of maxwell's equations, which were more or less based on the same classical mechanical principles that scientists had been developing for 200 years before that.

Quantum mechanics wasn't particularly important until we were able to probe down to subatomic levels, and we always knew that we didn't understand what was going on there, so it didn't really 'overturn' anything. Quantum mechanics once you get up to the scale of everyday life essentially becomes classical mechanics, which are as valid now as they were 200 years ago for almost everything we do in daily life.

The standard model was just a development of quantum mechanics. The discovery of new particles didn't overturn anything. They always knew there could be other ones out there, even if they didn't expect any of them in particular.
posted by empath at 10:33 AM on June 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


Science is faith. Much of what later scientists do is believing, on faith, the prior "proven facts" and building on them.

Think unit tests.
posted by Artw at 10:41 AM on June 1, 2013


Really weird argument Ironmouth. It ends up being reductio ad absurdum. I guess that since we can't know anything for certain everything must be understood as a gesture of faith: I don't know I'm typing this, I only have faith in that I'm typing it. You may or may not exist, but I have faith that you do. My brain might or might not be a brain in a jar, but I have faith that it isn't.
posted by Omon Ra at 10:45 AM on June 1, 2013 [5 favorites]


There's simply no way to backtrack from this derailing opening statement, which is wrong in every way about science and how scientists properly conduct their work. It could be corrected, however, by the simple application of the prefix "pseudo".

My point is this--the same as Fenyman's--that the way science is taught is largely the same as religion. As a result, laymen, who make up 99.99% of the people out there interact with scientific information in the same way some people interact with religion. They believe what they have read is true. That's the attitude Fenyman is trying to correct in these science teachers and the textbooks they use.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:45 AM on June 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


So, in other words, science isn't faith, but misapplied science used by ignorant people is understood in the same way faith is understood.
posted by Omon Ra at 10:49 AM on June 1, 2013 [6 favorites]


Quantum mechanics wasn't particularly important until we were able to probe down to subatomic levels, and we always knew that we didn't understand what was going on there, so it didn't really 'overturn' anything.

What QM did, IMO, was fill in blind-spots that weren't even considered as such prior, but upon reflection are pretty fundamental to the way we directly experience the world: why do we see colour? Why do things, our bodies, tables, rocks, have defined edges and surfaces (why don't we fall through the floor)? QM arguably got it's start explaining how light bulbs work and how coals glow. EM theory can't explain the thermo-electric effect, for example.

I'd argue that the development QM from the early 1900s through the late 20th was a pretty fundamental change to the understanding of direct human experience, not just "filling in the gaps" of Maxwell's EM theory. Futhermore, QM is the one theory that defines much of (late) 20th century technology as opposed to the 19th: modern drugs, electronics, genetics, almost every product or "high-tech" industry exists because of QM.
posted by bonehead at 10:52 AM on June 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Academic culture seems to have become more insulated and elitist since the days when Nobel prize winning physicists would give workshops at the "Esalen Institute." I guess these days we can listen to Stephen Hawkings and Lawrence Krauss demand a Nobel prize for proclaiming that M-Theory has proven "the universe can and will create itself from nothing" and suchlike at the Atheist Convention.

It seems to me we may be creating an orthodoxy of scientific opinion that discourages scientists from thinking about things differently and has too much control over where grant money goes and what grad students can work on.

They believe what they have read is true. That's the attitude Fenyman is trying to correct in these science teachers and the textbooks they use.

With the caveat that in the case of science we also believe that if we did enough work and were smart enough, we would be able to verify experimentally what we have been taught to believe.
posted by Golden Eternity at 10:57 AM on June 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


My point is this--the same as Fenyman's--that the way science is taught is largely the same as religion.

Well that wouldn't be "science" then, would it? That would be "the way science is taught", which of it ends up resembling the way religion is taught I would call "poorly".

As a result, laymen, who make up 99.99% of the people out there interact with scientific information in the same way some people interact with religion.

You really wouldn't be helping with that with your sloppy opening.
posted by Artw at 11:00 AM on June 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


As thread-starter, am I allowed to request that this derail be taken to MeMail? It's pedantic at best, inflammatory at worst, and it's not even a smidgen interesting.
posted by Rory Marinich at 11:02 AM on June 1, 2013 [9 favorites]


So, in other words, science isn't faith, but misapplied science used by ignorant people is understood in the same way faith is understood.

I would say that Fenyman is arguing that even our "science education" is doing that. And I would argue that I interact with science that same way--I too take it as true in the way a religious person believes that lighting comes from Zeus. The powerful point Fenyman is making is that we don't challenge our own way of thinking of science or even the scientific method itself and that we don't educate well because of it.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:06 AM on June 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


As thread-starter, am I allowed to request that this derail be taken to MeMail? It's pedantic at best, inflammatory at worst, and it's not even a smidgen interesting.

Its not a derail if it was the author's point regarding scientific education. Let's reset the question--what are ways we could be teaching and writing science to avoid the pitfall Fenyman, the author of the piece is pointing out?
posted by Ironmouth at 11:09 AM on June 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


As a result, laymen, who make up 99.99% of the people out there interact with scientific information in the same way some people interact with religion. They believe what they have read is true.

The only assumption science makes is that if something is real, it can be shown to someone else. Without that assumption I'm pretty sure the world would be a very different place.

"This entity is divine and here's what they reveal!"

is not the same as

"Here are the results of our experiments and observations so far."

The reactions to these two statements is also radically different: religions generally blob unrelated information as the unquestionable truth contingent upon the credit of some supernatural, unrepeatable miracles. The practice of science bases its credit on how easy it is to question the claims through experimentation, and it does not senselessly attach theories to unrelated theories as riders on that worldview. If one scientific theory is proven to be false, it's just discarded. If one part of a religious worldview is proven to be false or is no longer necessary, removing it is an excruciating process that calls into question every other part of that worldview.

Almost everything about science and religion is different, including the way people interact with them.
posted by tripping daisy at 11:11 AM on June 1, 2013


Mobunited nails the "believers in the results of actual scientific studies as practicers of a faith" more succinctly than I could.

Note this is not calling the scientific process, or, science as a field "a faith". But it IS calling virtually everyone's response to "latest scientific discovery/theory proof", as "must be true/must be a valid improvement in our understanding" a faithlike response, because these everyones have NOT evaluated each discovery scientifically with ANY rigor.

We ALL do this. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. of us. There is no time to develop the expertise, much less accurately assess all science being done, so we take it from Authority. And that is an act of faith.

I say this as a practising chemistry professor who teaches other scientists how to do science, develops and experimentally tests theories , reviews grant proposals and writes papers.

Hint: that's an argument from authority!
posted by lalochezia at 11:12 AM on June 1, 2013 [5 favorites]


As an empiricist I continue to think of the conceptual scheme of science as a tool, ultimately, for predicting future experience in the light of past experience. Physical objects are conceptually imported into the situation as convenient intermediaries not by definition in terms of experience, but simply as irreducible posits comparable, epistemologically, to the gods of Homer . . . For my part I do, qua lay physicist, believe in physical objects and not in Homer's gods; and I consider it a scientific error to believe otherwise. But in point of epistemological footing, the physical objects and the gods differ only in degree and not in kind. Both sorts of entities enter our conceptions only as cultural posits. --WVO Quine
posted by Golden Eternity at 11:17 AM on June 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Science is faith. Much of what later scientists do is believing, on faith, the prior "proven facts" and building on them.

Much of science and the use of science is trust not faith. Trust that gets verified or undermined by subsequent experiments/experience/evidence.

Faith is something else entirely from trust. Trust is something that can be earned, given and taken away. Faith is something less flexible and more personal. You either have it or you lose it all on your own.

When people say they have faith in science I really think they are just metaphorically or inarticulately expressing a trust in the practices of science rather than an actual literal faith. They are not really expressing that they will resist any evidence that science is flawed no matter what.
posted by srboisvert at 11:31 AM on June 1, 2013 [7 favorites]


Science is puppies.
posted by Omon Ra at 11:35 AM on June 1, 2013


trust not faith.

Sure, sure. But lets be clear here, most pseudoscience and a lot of religion is based on trust not faith. The more finely you define faith, the less it applies to what we actually think of as faith.

Something evidenced by confirmation bias, the placebo effect, or attested to by someone you feel has authority (e.g. your priest), becomes not-faith at that point.
posted by tychotesla at 11:43 AM on June 1, 2013


I never tire of quoting the late, great George Box. Science is merely the process of identifying, elaborating, and testing provisional models of how reality works. Box said, "...all models are wrong, but some are useful." Science is merely the act of determining rigorously which models are useful for describing the world.
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:50 AM on June 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


For approximately 500 years [science's] argument for its pre-eminence was that it could create beautiful toys: aircraft, railroads, global economies, television, spacecraft. But that is a fool’s argument for truth! I mean, that’s after all how a medicine show operates, you know: the juggler is so good, the medicine must be even better! This is not an entirely rational way to proceed.

-- Terence McKenna
posted by foot at 11:50 AM on June 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


Let's reset the question--what are ways we could be teaching and writing science to avoid the pitfall Fenyman, the author of the piece is pointing out?

Teach students to read the primary literature. Emphasize critical evaluation of the reported results. Distinguish what conclusions are supported by the presented evidence and what is simply conjecture. Critique the quality of the experimentation. Teach them to seek other independent experiments that support or refute the literature.

Emphasize that scientific experimentation allows us to construct a model of the physical world, that we might predict future results.

Discourage any reliance on science journalism, SCIENCE!-type memes, or faith in results that support a predesired outcome. Remove 'faith' from scientific inquiry.
posted by Existential Dread at 11:52 AM on June 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't need to take on faith scientific results. Since I was at school I've been taught with actual experiments being part of the education.
I've done the Stern-Gerlach experiment, used the Michelson-Morely interferometer and long before I did those tested Hooke's Law. Not everyone has repeated every experiment, but the mere ability to lends credence beyond faith.
posted by edd at 12:28 PM on June 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Ironmouth: I just read the speech and I really don't see where Feynman comes anywhere close to saying "Science is Faith". I think his point is exactly the opposite. Isn't he saying that every generation, or even every person, should check and double check the observations and models developed by previous generations and other persons? He says:

Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.

If I could define faith in a similar vain, it would be "Faith is the belief in a single omniscient being". Aren't they opposite?

In a way it seems Feynman is arguing, in 1966, for a type of crowd sourcing. That everybody should have a shot at repeating the experiments, making the observations, and fighting it out to develop the best model from the observations.

Finally, maybe science is taught too often as an article of faith. I tell you that atoms have protons and you memorize that atoms have protons just like you memorize the "Our Father". But that doesn't mean science is faith. That just means we are teaching it wrong.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 12:30 PM on June 1, 2013


If I could define faith in a similar vain, it would be "Faith is the belief in a single omniscient being".

That's a rather narrow definition. The Oxford dictionary has:

Complete trust or confidence in someone or something.

I think you're referring to religious faith.
posted by walrus at 1:15 PM on June 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm curious - have you taken a science class recently? In my experience, having taken science classes throughout college and teaching one now, observation and experimentation are fundamental to the way colleges teach science. For example, the course I teach is on human evolution. Among other things, I use fossil casts, films of wild primates, trips to observe captive primates, and other lab exercises to get students to test hypotheses. Where we can't directly test hypotheses, they think of ways they could do that and what data they would need to disprove or support their hypotheses about (say) the degree of observable biological variation in human dentition in modern populations.

And this is stuff we've taken from successful lab sciences like physics, biology, and chemistry. I'm just not sure that "but people just TRUST things" is a particularly meaningful argument when anyone who's taken college science classes has gone through labs explaining how we go about knowing what we know, and how we go about evaluating explanations for observed phenomena, and in many cases have even gone through that process themselves while completing their coursework.
posted by ChuraChura at 1:51 PM on June 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


"...all models are wrong, but some are useful."

This, I think, may get to Ironmouth's point about faith in science and Feynman's statement warning not to believe in the infallibility of "the greatest teachers." We may be taught to "believe" the latest scientific theories even though they are most likely technically "false" - true only under some circumstances or within limits. But so what. Faith would seem to imply believing in something despite the evidence, which is obviously not science - so I don't think it is an appropriate word to use.

Science is merely the process of identifying, elaborating, and testing provisional models of how reality works.

And in addition, some scientists may hope for models that are aesthetically elegant and give us a new intuitive understanding of the world. I could imagine something like a massive Boltzmann machine-like artificial 'neural network' or evolutionary software program that we could feed all results of all known scientific experiments into, and tune the learning algorithm until it gives perfect results within measurement error or whatever. Maybe it makes other predictions which also turn out to be true. Such a machine would be perfectly useful model of reality, but would not give the intuitive understanding that Feynman got from his father or that scientists get from Newton's Laws, Maxwell's Equations, General Relativity, etc.

Another of the qualities of science is that it teaches the value of rational thought as well as the importance of freedom of thought ... to doubt that what is being passed from the past is in fact true, and to try to find out ab initio again from experience what the situation is, rather than trusting the experience of the past in the form in which it is passed down.


Of Feynman's criticisms, this may be the most valid today, imo. Freedom of thought seems to be somewhat restricted in current academic culture. Maybe this is natural because scientists have figured out so much of the world and it takes years just to fully understand the current theories and gain the intuition they offer. The theories seem infallible and remaining mysteries seem small, but I tend to think there are mysteries that are not as small as they are made out to be by the most prominent scientists, even by Feynman, and may require very different thinking.

In religion, the moral lessons are taught, but they are not just taught once, you are inspired again and again, and I think it is necessary to inspire again and again

So refreshing to see Feynman not be an asshole about religion.
posted by Golden Eternity at 2:12 PM on June 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


So refreshing to see Feynman not be an asshole about religion.

Yes, but the way he talked about women in that speech. I know it was 1966, but Christ, what an asshole.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 2:51 PM on June 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yeah, that was awful.
posted by Golden Eternity at 3:02 PM on June 1, 2013


We ALL do this. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. of us. There is no time to develop the expertise, much less accurately assess all science being done, so we take it from Authority. And that is an act of faith.

faith
/fāTH/
Noun
Complete trust or confidence in someone or something.

Making an educated decision to trust experts in a field that you don't personally have expertise in is not an act of faith. Far from it, actually. I don't have faith that the papers I cite a true -- I trust that they were written with sufficient rigour and I keep an eye out for things that might prove them wrong. If that's faith we have vastly differing interpretations of the word.

This thread reminds me of sitting around getting high with my friends in high school and being all "But, like, how does anyone actually know anything, man...." We should all chip in and buy Ironmouth a copy of Kuhn for their birthday.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 3:15 PM on June 1, 2013


The first thing you do in science classes (at least beyond elementary school) is to replicate the famous experiments that test the fundamental theories. It's true of chemistry and physics, for sure, and often in biology. If that's anyone's version of faith, I like to know what they mean by skepticism.
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:25 PM on June 1, 2013


And in addition, some scientists may hope for models that are aesthetically elegant and give us a new intuitive understanding of the world.

Well, I agree they hope for those, but that's not what determines the science. And the intuition lies in the model itself rather than in other vaguely identified place. In other words, a model that's intuitive is one that works so well we have already incorporated into our automatic thinking, whether through observation or rigorous analysis. Newton's mechanics were not intuitive when he described them. Nor were Einstein's theories. And certainly not quantum mechanics. Now they may seem intuitive to those who fully grasp them.
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:30 PM on June 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think the more you sit here theorizing about what science is/isn't, the more you have missed the point of Feynman's talk.
posted by polymodus at 5:12 PM on June 1, 2013


Science adjusts its views based on what is observed. Faith is the denial of observation so that belief can be preserved.

I know of many people who claim to have faith in a higher power (God, whatever), who have nevertheless adjusted aspects of this faith as they've gained experience of how the world really seems to work. The simplest example of this would be a changing in their attitude toward homosexuality once they realize that someone they love and respect is gay. So similar to science, some people of faith keep the stuff that works, and discard the stuff that doesn't.

Faith defends the absence of evidence. Science defends nothing and demands evidence for everything. They literally have nothing in common.

Some Faiths do defend the absence of evidence; indeed, they sometimes offend in the name of this absence. But again, many people of faith merely accept the lack of evidence. Which I think is much closer to a working definition of faith, and gets close to the real difference between science and faith (as I've observed them).

Faith accepts a lack of evidence for something. Science doesn't.
posted by philip-random at 7:46 PM on June 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


I tend to view "science" in the same way I view "justice." In both cases, it's not a matter of individuals. Scientists, like judges, aren't trusted to simply decide truth and falsehood based on their own inherent objective reasoning (such as it is). Instead we have a complex social infrastructure - in the case of justice the judicial system, juries and lawyers, etc., in the case of science we have peer review and multiple experimental verification.

In the case of both the jury trial and peer review, interestingly, the emphasis is certainly not on individual probity or objectivity. It's generally assumed that the arguments put forward by the lawyers of the respective sides will be as self-serving and un-objective as possible, the further assumption being that the opposing side will call out obvious BS and that the judge will act as a sort of referee. In the case of peer review and scientific debate generally, no one who has ever actually been near the thing believes that the scientists involved are objective paragons of clear-headed reason. They're usually highly committed to (or against) the dominant paradigm or the innovation under discussion. But the structure of the thing is set up so that over time the BS is weeded out and the valuable hypotheses eventually make it past the gatekeepers.

People who talk about science purely in terms of whether scientists (or laymen) are being objective seekers of truth or "faith"-based people miss the point. It's the institution, the structure, that is the repository of the values that ensure that something of value emerges at the end of all the sausage-making.
posted by AdamCSnider at 8:05 PM on June 1, 2013 [2 favorites]


Note this is not calling the scientific process, or, science as a field "a faith". But it IS calling virtually everyone's response to "latest scientific discovery/theory proof", as "must be true/must be a valid improvement in our understanding" a faithlike response, because these everyones have NOT evaluated each discovery scientifically with ANY rigor.

We ALL do this. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. of us. There is no time to develop the expertise, much less accurately assess all science being done, so we take it from Authority. And that is an act of faith
Right, but the same act of faith you display when you hear any news story. Let's say I am listening to a news report saying that the Turkish people are protesting in Istanbul. Do I need to see footage of it? Do I need to be there, on the ground, witnessing it happen in person for it to be probably true? Of course not. Could I learn more about the news, see more videos, and read more first-hand accounts by multiple sources? Sure. So there's no reason for me to doubt that protests happened in Istanbul, because it's not a wild claim, and it fits in with what I already know about that country.

The same thing goes for science news. If I hear that they've got a process for creating transistors down a few nanometers, that does not mean my acceptance of that scientific development is based on faith alone. It's based on previous observations and rational thinking. If the same company made a similar announcement two years ago for a similar process that has been improved slightly, and the product came to market, and I can buy it and test it myself, there's practically no faith involved. There's no incentive for the company or the scientists who work for it to misrepresent themselves, unless their company is going under.

Now, let's say that a company makes a ludicrous claim, like they have created a perpetual energy machine. Sure, the same people who believe in homeopathy or the power of crystals may get super excited and accept it on faith, but not anyone else. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and science does not make special exceptions for itself. When inventors/scientists do make extraordinary breakthroughs, they are happy to demonstrate them for multiple audiences and in controlled environments for anyone who wants to see. If the same thing were true of faith, then every report about miracle faith healing wouldn't be restricted to rumors of claimed healing events. The reports would include video of the person performing the faith healing, and then a doctor saying, "Yep, they're miraculously cured and there's no scientific explanation."

Science welcomes skepticism; it depends on it for culling the truth from the lies. Ideologies that must rely on faith cannot welcome skepticism or investigation, or they will (typically) cease to exist.
posted by tripping daisy at 8:29 PM on June 1, 2013 [4 favorites]


Science keeps the stuff that works, and discards the stuff that doesn't, and is constantly changing and refining.

Almost sounds like the history of various world religions, but belief evolves differently.
posted by ovvl at 5:17 PM on June 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Art of Ofey: Richard Feynman’s Little-Known Sketches & Drawings
posted by homunculus at 5:43 PM on June 2, 2013 [1 favorite]


Richard Feynman on flowers, artists and scientists
posted by homunculus at 5:44 PM on June 2, 2013 [2 favorites]


Let's say I am listening to a news report saying that the Turkish people are protesting in Istanbul. Do I need to see footage of it? Do I need to be there, on the ground, witnessing it happen in person for it to be probably true? Of course not. Could I learn more about the news, see more videos, and read more first-hand accounts by multiple sources? Sure. So there's no reason for me to doubt that protests happened in Istanbul, because it's not a wild claim, and it fits in with what I already know about that country.

I think you ought to look at more news. A lot of the things news initially reports are wrong--the whole protesters were outside the US diplomatic facility in Benghazi, etc.

The fact is a person who took science journalism in 1899 as true because, you know, experts, peer review and all that were wrong. And that's true today. While I was contributing here on Saturday I was having an argument with a super smart friend who insisted black holes were a proven, observable fact. They aren't. It turns out there are other theories describing what happens in gravitational collapse, being put forward by real physicists at major US universities and national labs.

This isn't to say that the theory of black holes is wrong. But many, many people mistake the current state of scientific theory as correct, rather than a changing set of assumptions about the universe and science education and public discourse follow this view without often questioning it. I once knew a professional biologist quite well--and was blown away when she explained that evolution was a theory and that it was the best theory we have now, but that it would be inevitably be replaced by a better theory. I was blown away. But it is true.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:34 AM on June 3, 2013 [2 favorites]


Now, let's say that a company makes a ludicrous claim, like they have created a perpetual energy machine. Sure, the same people who believe in homeopathy or the power of crystals may get super excited and accept it on faith, but not anyone else.

You can see that right now with all the skepticism about DWAVE's 'quantum computers' which don't appear to actually be quantum computers.
posted by empath at 9:38 AM on June 3, 2013


But many, many people mistake the current state of scientific theory as correct, rather than a changing set of assumptions about the universe and science education and public discourse follow this view without often questioning it.

Nobody who knows anything about science does this. This is literally the opposite of how science works. They teach you this in 7th grade.
posted by empath at 9:40 AM on June 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


You say this and yet I encounter a lot of CERTAINTY from pro-science types. Mustn't have been paying attention in Grade 7.
posted by philip-random at 10:10 AM on June 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


Because even though science is provisional, it's still better than any other way of figuring things out. Just using evolution for example--it's a theory, but it's better by orders of magnitude than any alternative. Same goes for black holes. There is very, very strong evidence that they exist. Any alternative theory has a lot of work to do to be convincing.

People's 'faith' in science is really a time saving heuristic to stop people from wasting their time investigating the claims of cranks and faith-healers. There is always some small chance that a fringe theory might be true, but they'll have to get around to using the scientific method eventually to establish it.
posted by empath at 10:18 AM on June 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


You say this and yet I encounter a lot of CERTAINTY from pro-science types.

Yeah, I'd be really surprised if the majority of scientists today would agree that the theory of evolution 'will inevitably be replaced by a better theory.' Modified or built upon? Yes. But replaced?
posted by Golden Eternity at 10:23 AM on June 3, 2013


You say this and yet I encounter a lot of CERTAINTY from pro-science types. Mustn't have been paying attention in Grade 7.

No one is denying that some people get hubristic about science, but that does not mean that science is hubristic. The practice of science assumes only one thing: if something is true, you can construct an experiment to demonstrate that it is true and show it to someone else.

Also, you should make sure that you aren't mistaking certainty in the process from certainty in the result. I don't think any serious skeptic accepts results as the permanent truth, because the truth as it is known today is only as good as our technology and understanding allows today. Faith-based ideologies tend to operate with the opposite assumption: they claim to know eternal truths which cannot change, regardless of what humanity may learn in the future.

Just picture faith and science in the courtroom. The faithful present their assertions and plead for belief without evidence beyond those assertions. The skeptics present their evidence and replace assertions with conclusions, and ask for nothing except an examination of their case. It's fairly obvious which process is more exploitable, which process leads to more lies, and which process leads to more predictable results.
posted by tripping daisy at 12:02 PM on June 3, 2013 [1 favorite]


Because even though science is provisional, it's still better than any other way of figuring things out.

Well put. Meta-apply the scientific method to itself, and it's inevitable that one day it will be replaced or subsumed just as QM has subsumed classical physics. And, just the same, the scientific method will still be useful for the vast majority of lay folks who don't understand the newer, broader system.

And some day we will all be laughed at with the same scorn we currently aim at those poor unfortunates who quested imperfectly for knowledge before the scientific method came along.
posted by MoTLD at 3:04 PM on June 4, 2013


Science!
posted by homunculus at 1:30 PM on June 6, 2013


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