March 22, 2014

Fooling ourselves

Back in 1974, Richard Feynman, one of the most famous physicists of the 20th century, gave a commencement address at the California Institute of Technology. He called it “Cargo Cult Science” (PDF). It contains what I think is the best succinct summary of the scientific process:

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.

He then said, “it's easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.” The entire structure of science—in universities and journals, online and offline, and in the principles of being able to repeat experiments, disprove theories, and predict results—is an attempt to keep from fooling ourselves about reality.

This is a clear demonstration of how hard it is to avoid being foolish: scientists and the rest of us still fool ourselves all the time. But the process also does a good job at correcting our mistakes, so our foolishness doesn’t last long. Being that it is a human system, science isn’t perfect, but it does well at refining our knowledge, allowing us to weed out imperfections in our understanding of our world and the Universe.

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