Sunday, June 22, 2014

Catmando: Dr. Richard Feynman's Primer For Deniers

While going over the comments to Hans Clusters "Is Climate Science falsifiable" I came across the obligatory (yet misleading) appeal to Dr. Richard Feynman's authority.  Probably the most charismatic and hip atom bomb building physicist there was, kids and lefties loved him.  Back in the day, I read a couple of his books and he did a wonderful job of explaining science, plus his own life story was quite fascinating.  To top it off, one of his last big acts was to bust open the Challenger Shuttle disaster investigation with a simple demonstration that highlighted the foolishness of blasting off a rocket early after a freezing night with icicles still dangling off the gantry.

His name has now become a favored among the contrarian crowd.  You see, Dr. Feynman gave a great many lectures and was loved for his provocative approach to teaching physics and his copious legacy has become a motherlode for the quote-mining debate loving crowd.  

Then, looking up more background information I was reading Victor Venema's interesting article "Falsifiable and falsification in science" over at his Variable Variability blog, I found out that a few months ago Catmando took the time to find some Feynman quotes that shed a more realistic light onto his thinking about the scientific process than the disingenuous curve balls our contrarian debate mates toss out.  

Catmando has been kind enough to give me permission to repost his article in full - and both of us give you permission to copy and pass along - but please do give him credit for his work and link back to

I also want to invite anyone who knows of other Feynman quotes worth contemplating please do share.

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A Richard Feynman Primer For Deniers

Thursday, 20 February 2014 ~ IngeniousPursuits.blogspot

Deniers love Richard Feynman.  He was everything that they could hope for, successful, witty, a hit with the ladies, a bona fide genius and Nobel laureate.  They love to quote him because he seems to support what they are aiming at: science is uncertain, some bits of science aren't true, etc.

But I sometimes wonder what Feynman would have made of the denialists.  Since he died in 1988 it isn't possible to ask him and I don't have to hand his collected works so I can't interrogate them either.  But he left some interesting quotes, the sort that the deniers usually don't bother with, that give us an idea of what he might have thought, for instance, of climate change denial.

First exhibit:
“Ordinary fools are all right; you can talk to them, and try to help them out. But pompous fools - guys who are fools and are covering it all over and impressing people as to how wonderful they are with all this hocus locus - THAT, I CANNOT STAND! 
An ordinary fool isn't a faker; an honest fool is all right. But a dishonest fool is terrible!”
I can think of some examples of the dishonest fools that Feynman might mean here.  In the interests of keeping lawyers unemployed, I shall not name names but leave it to the reader to guess who I might have in mind.  Some of them are peerless, others not so.

Second exhibit:
"So my antagonist said, "Is it impossible that there are flying saucers? Can you prove that it's impossible?" "No", I said, "I can't prove it's impossible. It's just very unlikely". At that he said, "You are very unscientific. If you can't prove it impossible then how can you say that it's unlikely?" 
But that is the way that is scientific. It is scientific only to say what is more likely and what less likely, and not to be proving all the time the possible and impossible.”
 Climate was less of an important topic when Feynman was alive but UFOs were.  The point of this quote is clear - Feynman was a true skeptic.  The fake skeptic denialists are certain they have shown anthropogenic climate change is impossible.  The proponents of AGW have demonstrated the idea beyond reasonable and scientific doubt.  

Third exhibit:
“A philosopher once said, "It is necessary for the very existence of science that the same conditions always produce the same results." Well, they don't!” 
Deniers put unreasonable demands on scientific evidence.  Just like Feynman's hypothetical philosopher.

Fourth exhibit:
“Of course, I am interested, but I would not dare to talk about them. In talking about the impact of ideas in one field on ideas in another field, one is always apt to make a fool of oneself. In these days of specialization there are too few people who have such a deep understanding of two departments of our knowledge that they do not make fools of themselves in one or the other.” 
In other words, unless you are truly expert, don't act as if you were.

My opinion is that Feynman would have laughed the deniers out of court. He would have educated himself first, read some key literature and found out what was true, what was known and what uncertainties there were.  But he would have come down on the side of science against anti-science. He understood as well as anyone that science does find things out that are true and that plenty of science is settled.  He wasn't stupid, like the ordinary fools he met on many of his working days.

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