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