The Ignorance of Experts

Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts. – Richard Feynman

I’ve seen this quote so often of late, used as a way to disparage the idea that any scientists are to be trusted, that I was finally motivated to do what any skeptic must do, to go to the source and read the quote for myself in its proper context, rather than in isolation or perhaps dropped into another context where it probably does not belong.

I was delighted to find an imaginative and insightful lecture behind the quote, and one aimed at two subjects that are important to me, science, and teaching.  I was more than a little perturbed at the way that Feynman described women, and while one could say “it was 1966,” it’s never-the-less appalling and reminds me how unsettling and unfair our society had been to women and minorities (and still can be – which relates directly to his own statements about science, but applied to an ever maturing society – perhaps “Morality is the belief in the transgressions of the righteous.”).

But the important thing was the context.  Context.  Feynman was talking to teachers, about the teaching of science.  He was emphasizing to the teachers the importance of teaching the method, but not as a rote recipe to be applied without thought or understanding.  He was emphasizing the core, instinctive approach that a well trained scientist must undertake.  And he was emphasizing the importance of being a true skeptic, of keeping an open mind, and learning from the ongoing science and the observations and the experiment itself, rather than from past proclamations and the rote recipe for science.

He also said:

It is necessary to teach both to accept and to reject the past with a kind of balance that takes considerable skill.

Considerable skill.  Not blind dismissal of scientists.  With skill.  Considerable skill.

And he said:

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.

Be patient and listen.  All the evidence.

And he said:

Each generation that discovers something from its experience must pass that on, but it must pass that on with a delicate balance of respect and disrespect, so that the [human] race–now that it is aware of the disease to which it is liable–does not inflict its errors too rigidly on its youth, but it does pass on the accumulated wisdom, plus the wisdom that it may not be wisdom.

Balance.  Respect and disrespect.

This all seems very, very applicable to the question at hand, to the roles of varying scientists and experiments and opinions in a new and important question, the question of anthropogenic climate change.  To me, years of both past and recent research and ideas and experiments are what matter, and that the body of evidence which falls in line with the larger body of active scientists, properly trained and executing their discipline, is what matters… and that the working scientists are in fact always the true “skeptics” in this whole mess.

But most importantly, the original quote, that “science is the belief in the ignorance of experts,” does not in any way say what it implies when taken out of context, that one should never trust science, or the experts, the scientists.  That is, in fact, not in contradiction but rather orthogonal to Feynman’s intent.

Trust and distrust.  Pick and choose.  Find a way to find the truth.  That was his message.  Train good scientists, by teaching the proper method, which begins with doubt, and ends with a better (if imperfect) understanding.

In the end, realize that Feynman was teaching the teachers how to mold the future experts themselves, by mitigating the impact of the past experts, and the impact of their own ignorance on both themselves, and those who would come after.

There is a body of varied and cumulative evidence, uncovered and presented by a body of scientists, continually enhanced by even more effort and evidence, which together greatly outweighs an opposing and stagnant and completely unsupported idea that the human race cannot impact climate.  How you choose to use the information, with considerable skill or blind expectation, with respect or disrespect, is up to you, but following the rote recipe of distrusting the experts is no more correct than blind trust of one expert, or another with an opposing position.

So carry on. Thank you. – Richard Feynman

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9 comments on “The Ignorance of Experts

  1. JCH says:

    So if I believe experts are ignorant, I’m doing science?

    Wow, doing science isn’t even half as hard as I thought it would be.

  2. Donald says:

    Nice comment over at Realclimate (O’Donnellgate). Thoughtful post here too- I was also taken by Feynman’s lecture. Seems to go over the head of some, though, for example, cough, the previous comment.

  3. Peter Freeman says:

    I am amazed, you do have an understanding of what science is supposed to be and how it is supposed to operate. What I can’t understand is why you can’t see how it is primarily being c corrupted. Or perhaps you do.

    Today it is not enough to look at what the findings or the conclusions alone, but who funded them and what the motivations behind that funding were. Science can be and is being bought, its a fact of our modern world. Behind this new world of paid for scientific results are only two motivations: Money and Power.

    So before one looks at any of today’s science one has to look what is behind it first. Far more important than what the so called science is saying is who is trying to say it and why. To do this is a kind of science but not an empirical science, one needs to have studied the world at large combining history modern day political climate including economics and religions. Far more important than understanding the science is understanding where it is coming from, how it is effecting the world as its ‘findings’ are incorporated into the world.

    So what does one make of ‘science’ that has the world governments, industry, the world media, big banks, big oil, you name it, all pushing like made to get the public to swallow fears of global catastrophe? What does that look like? Now consider that the reaction of all the above said interested parties is not in line with avoiding the catastrophe they are all so keen for us to believe in, but rather center entirely around profiteering and power mongering. What are we indeed looking at?

    Yes but the science, you say, it all adds up, all makes sense, is all sound. Really? How do you know this? Did you take down all the raw data yourself or did someone else? Who paid for the raw data to be collected? What if the fundamental underlying facts are fiction?

    So, who is qualified here to be an expert, who should we believe? How do we know? Who is the expert?

    Or does the big picture tell the story that is plain to see?

    • sphaerica says:

      Who exactly is funding this grand conspiracy? Who is more likely to have the money and organization to fund a conspiracy, a bizarre cabal of scientists and politicians who never even met before some climate change convention, or the board of directors of a mega billion dollar oil company (or perhaps the good old boys from several such companies in a single industry)?

      No, sorry, I don’t buy into any of this “it’s all a conspiracy” cr@p.

      And even if I did… the science is absolutely solid. Even if people were doing this for the wrong reasons, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a huge, huge problem, and one that gets more dangerous and expensive every day we delay action.

      • Peter Freeman says:

        For a start, do you claim the UN did not set up the IPCC? If they did would that have required funding? If yes, then you have the first step in the money trail.

        Secondly did the UN set up the Carbon Credits trading market? Did the *UNFCCC not sign up country after countries (only those that signed the Kyoto protocol mind you) business registries on the The International Transaction Log (ITL) through which all the monetary settlements take place? And how much is the Carbon Trading market worth?

        According to the **official financial report from the World Bank in 2009 and 2010 alone Carbon Credits traded value was $269 Billion!



        So would you agree that a fair, conservative estimate of the Carbon Credit market revenue since Kyoto in 1997 would be over a Trillion USD?

        Tell me again about your dismissive notion of “who would fund this grand conspiracy?” Do you still think the World Bank and the UN have no vested interest in the reports produced by the IPCC?

        What about the carbon taxes every government in the world is collecting? How much is that worth? Could a government that did not ratify the IPCC reports continue to collect Carbon taxes?

        Would it be fair to observe that more money has exchanged hands than CO2 emission has been reduced?

        Now lets talk about ‘conspiracies’. All throughout history nations, tribes, kingdoms, countries etc have sought to expand their wealth and power via any and all means possible. Yes? How often in all honesty were their methods of expansion ethical and fair and how often were their methods underhanded, deceptive, violent, destructive etc? What about today in our modern theater of economic wealth and power? Why is it so unreasonable to think that nothing has changed and that people are still behaving as they always have done throughout all history?

        Lastly I ask you again about your sure stance on the science. Did YOU, yourself, collect the RAW DATA the IPCC used to create their models with? If not how are you SO sure that data was correct? And if the data was accurate how can you be SO sure it was not manipulated in the creation of the models that predict doom and destruction?

        CO2 is 1.5 times heavier than air. How come NONE of the reports mention this or account for how concentration levels of CO2 are be affected at altitude due to gravity pulling it all back down to earth 24 hours a day? How much CO2 exactly IS there at high altitude? Or does the IPCC model say that the CO2 is predominantly found at ground level and THAT is where the ‘green house’ effect is taking place?

        1+? Trillion US Dollars to me says that there is no AGW.
        1+? Trillion US Dollars say to me that this is about wealth and power.

        Call me stupid if you want

      • sphaerica says:

        Not stupid, but misinformed and distracted.

        First, who cares if the UN set up the IPCC? Who cares if they have a budget? Their budget is about $8 million a year. The budget for the International Energy Agency for 2001 was $230 million. The budget for the World Bank is $1.3 billion a year. The budget for the World Health Organization is over $5.8 billion a year.

        The GDP for the USA is about $14.7 trillion a year. The GDP for the EU is about $16.2 trillion. The GDP for China is about $5.9 trillion, for Japan $5.5 trillion.

        The total value of the world wide fossil fuel industry in 2007 was $1.2 trillion.

        You think anyone really cares about the $8 million a year for the IPCC, or that it matters one whit in the scheme of things?

        Complaints about carbon trading are similarly silly. $269 billion? So what, that’s the point. The whole idea is to let capitalism help to determine how best to wean ourselves from fossil fuel and reduce our CO2 footprint. Will it work? Maybe not. Is it this best system? Almost certainly not. Is it better than doing absolutely nothing (which is what the U.S. is doing)? Absolutely.

        This is all Jo Nova / conspiracy / be-afraid-be-very-very-afraid nonsense.

        It amazes me that you’d let your own lifestyle and civilization crumble before your eyes to defend the monetary gain of the already filthy-rich fossil fuel industry owners, who could care less about you as an individual, or your offspring.

        On the raw data… let’s see, you really think that thousands of scientists over thirty years have conspired to falsify the raw data, to trick the rest of us into… what? Funding their research for more years, so they continue to make the same $75K teaching salary that they’d get anyway from their university for doing the same research, regardless of what the results showed?

        On CO2 being heavier than air. Okay, that’s the most childish argument there is. If the “weight” of CO2 actually mattered, then all of the CO2 in the atmosphere would float down and blanket the surface of the earth, smothering to death every single animal. Come on, if you don’t understand science, then admit it and trust the people that do. Don’t try to dismiss scientists while you also try to out-think kindergarteners.

        I don’t call anyone stupid, because no one is. Everyone is capable of learning and understanding, but to do so you have to try to educate yourself, and you have to be a true skeptic. From my point of view, the conspiracy theories that you’ve bought into so easily deserve far more “skepticism” than the science, which I have looked into in great detail (so far as reading many of the leading papers, rather than merely what some blogger posts about those papers).

        The science is solid. The globe is going to warm. People with ingenuity and energy are going to make money from it no matter what anyone does. It won’t take carbon taxes to do that. The question is simply will the fossil fuel industry make unearned money by subverting the science, tricking people like you by preying on your politics and your fears and in so doing extending the life of the fossil fuel industry, at the cost of drought, famine, wars and refugees for millions of people, and economic upheaval for everyone involved (if the problem is allowed to continue and grow for too many decades without being reasonably addressed).

      • Peter Freeman says:

        [-- long, rambling attack on science edited. --]

        You still want me and others to follow your advice "if you don’t understand science, then admit it and trust the people that do"? Calling for people to suspend their own judgment is precisely and exactly the vey core of the AGW argument and thank the good Lord, people are not doing it! You believe in AGW because you want to and for no other good reason. The IPCC was set up as front for the UN to make money and gain a greater political control and if you can't see that no one can help you because you most certainly posses the mental capacity to see understand if you chose to! There is most certainly more money than science involved, that is just a FACT!

      • sphaerica says:

        Suspend your own judgment? No, quite the opposite. I want you to educate yourself and think for yourself.

        None of your opinions are new, or your own. You are spitting back what has been fed to you by Fox News, and a cast of characters and denial sites supported and funded by the fossil fuel industry.

        If you are oblivious to the funding the fossil fuel industry has put into this issue, that’s your own fault. Try googling “private free market climate institute” and see how many well funded purely PR oriented firms you come up with.

        You think you are being courageous and thoughtful, by mindlessly following one source information and angrily dismissing the rest.

        But none of your opinions are your own. Everything you say is just an echo of what you have heard.

        Go study. Go open your mind. Take responsibility for what you believe, instead of enjoying your righteous anger and propagating your errors.

        It’s easy to believe in what you are doing. Everyone does. The hard part is looking back and believing in what you’ve already done.

  4. Composer99 says:

    Well said, Sphaerica – both your original commentary on Feynman and your rebuttal of Mr Freeman in the comments.

    Thank you for linking to this from the Richard Milne video thread on Skeptical Science.

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