February 01, 2005

Environment > Richard Feynman, Cargo Cult Science, and Global Warming

feynman.jpgFeynman.com is a site devoted to the late, great Richard Feynman. There's more content on the site than first meets the eye. A lot of it is hidden behind drop-down menus.

Who's Richard Feynman?

Richard Feynman is as close as physics will ever get to a cult hero, even moreso than Albert Einstein, whom Feynman met when he was still a young student and Einstein was an important man. People respect Einstein, but they love Feynman.

Feynman worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II, later won the Nobel Prize in physics, invented a way of representing events in quantum field theory now known as Feynman diagrams, and served on the president's committee (the Roger Commission) to investigate the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. He told the history of his experience on the Rogers Commission in his book, What Do You Care What Other People Think? Feynman was the guy on TV dropping the O-rings into a pitcher of ice water to demonstrate what happened when the O-rings sealing the booster rocket's sections got too cold and could no longer form a seal.

His personal interests included playing the drums, sketching, getting women to sleep with him, cracking safes, and hanging out at topless bars. He's probably best known because of his book, Surely You Must Be Joking, Mr. Feynman. He's also the subject of a James Gleick biography, Genius, that I need to read one day. If anyone at work is reading this and wants to read the other two books, stop by my office. They're on my bookshelf.


Cargo Cult Science and Global Warming

If you don't read anything else of his, read his best-known essay, Cargo Cult Science, about the difficulty of doing science well, and the temptation to take shortcuts and engage in things that look like science, but that don't advance the body of scientific knowledge.

We have learned a lot from experience about how to handle some of the ways we fool ourselves. One example: Millikan measured the charge on an electron by an experiment with falling oil drops, and got an answer which we now know not to be quite right. It's a little bit off because he had the incorrect value for the viscosity of air. It's interesting to look at the history of measurements of the charge of an electron, after Millikan. If you plot them as a function of time, you find that one is a little bit bigger than Millikan's, and the next one's a little bit bigger than that, and the next one's a little bit bigger than that, until finally they settle down to a number which is higher.

Why didn't they discover the new number was higher right away? It's a thing that scientists are ashamed of--this history--because it's apparent that people did things like this: When they got a number that was too high above Millikan's, they thought something must be wrong--and they would look for and find a reason why something might be wrong. When they got a number close to Millikan's value they didn't look so hard. And so they eliminated the numbers that were too far off, and did other things like that. We've learned those tricks nowadays, and now we don't have that kind of a disease.

I have to disagree with Feynman here. We still have the disease and always will. I think of Feynman's example of Millikan and the oil drop experiments whenever someone talks about computer models of global warming.

If you've ever programmed computers you can imagine the development of those models. You write a program to simulate the climate. You run it the first time and it shows that the Earth is a frozen ball of ice right now. "Oops. That's not right." Then you fiddle with it so it's warmer and run it again. This time it predicts the planet will get so hot the oceans boil away next week. "Oops. Now it's too hot." And so you tweak it until it gives you the answer you expect, the answer that conforms to your current set of prejudices and the current publishing environment. That's not science.

And if you think that sort of mistake-by-expectation can't be made with today's all-new state of the art modern space age computerized superscience, read this, which appears to invalidate the hockey stick model of global warming that's been part of the environmentalist catechism for years. The disease will always be with us.

Posted by lesjones


I think Feynman may have been, uh, joking when he said we don't have that disease anymore. I've heard it called "primacy of first knowledge", and it is rampant, especially in biological fields, where data is fuzzier and practitioners less comfortable with math.
I once dug into the ornithological literature to figure out why the yellow-breasted chat is classified as a warbler. It turns out some revered early ornithologist placed them there pretty much as a best guess, and every subsequent person to reconsider was simply too timid to overrule the master. It's sad.
With respect to global warming, however, that problem is trumped by an even baser form of human misunderstanding -- simple distraction. Those with a stake in the status quo have been very effective at shifting the focus from the realm of fact (human activity has added huge amounts of combustion by-products to the atmosphere) to the realm of prediction (atmospheric pollution will cool/warm/destabilize/... the climate). With the focus on the predictive, they can easily dismiss any projections as "just predictions" and get back to the business of depleting as much non-renewable energy as possible with no regard for stewardship or future generations.

Posted by: hellbent at February 01, 2005

Hey Hey! Nice to find another Feynman fan out there. If you’re interested, here’s my recommended Feynman reading.

Posted by: Cutter at February 02, 2005
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