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Kindred Spirits in a Pathless Land — Part Eleven


Guest post by Kindred Spirits

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine, Part Ten

So you think science is the antidote to sloppy emotional thinking as shown in the last few posts? Alas, scientists and scientific funding are subject to our non-rational brains too. Richard Feynman was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project creating the atomic bomb in World War II. In the essay below, Feynman discusses some of the many challenges that scientists face which are examples of the “…first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Cargo Cult Science, by Richard Feynman:

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 the electron, after Millikan. If you plot them as a function of time, you find that one is a little 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 that 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 closer 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.

But this long history of learning how to not fool ourselves—of having utter scientific integrity—is, I’m sorry to say, something that we haven’t specifically included in any particular course that I know of. We just hope you’ve caught on by osmosis.

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that.

In another essay, Feynman argues that religion has a role in ethics, despite the metaphysics of religions being doubtful. He also investigated various mystical and alternative mental states (e.g., from sensory deprivation chambers), and seemingly decided that while the phenomena existed, it didn’t prove that any of the religious metaphysics was true.  You can read more of his thoughts in: The Relation of Science and Religion, by Richard Feynman.

Lastly, Feynman worked on creating the atomic bomb. Originally, he joined knowing that the Germans were also working an atomic bomb. However, after the Germans surrendered, the target was switched from the Germans to the Japanese who were not developing an atomic bomb, and he didn’t even question that change of the target at the time. (In an interview I saw, he seemed to think it was an ethical failure on his part. Alas, I could not find the video clip.)

So the question is, did science help Feynman make this ethical judgment? Did he make the correct ethical judgment?


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    In answer to your question at the end, my opinion is that science as such didn’t affect Feynman’s decision.

    As your post illustrates, scientists are the problem but science is the solution. That’s where even reasonably informed apologists err; they attack the vagaries of ‘science’, criticise it for always seemingly changing its mind, and wallowing in the glory of results found later to be false. They actually aren’t attacking science, but scientists who, after all, are human.

    Science is impartial, stark and brutal. It has no heed for reputations or even philosophy. Reputations are formed in the long term when the science is done properly, and peer reviewed. Even then it must stand the test of time. Philosophy, in the main, stands aside from science, and asks what you do with all of this information. Feynman was first and foremost a human being, as we all are. He achieved in his lifetime an understanding of the world around us almost beyond contemplation. He realised that he had in his grasp, though it was not only him, the power to bring an end to the war; or alternatively he just refused to continue his scientific development. In which case who knows? The knowledge was out there. If he hadn’t continued development then someone else would; indeed others were more significant to the effort by this time than was Feynman.

    I think this illustrates the moral dilemmas confronting humankind constantly, and making a nonsense of those who claim some sort of objective morality. We have to work things out as circumstances change. Were the atomic bombs dropped on Japan instrumental in ending the war? Unquestionably. Were they morally right? Possibly, though I sway easily according to argument, and would certainly say that Nagasaki was unnecessary. That’s me with lots of time to ponder after the event. If I’d been Feynman I’d probably have acted as he did.

    • Avatar
      Kindred Spirits

      I think there is a realm of values and ethics that is separate from science. Too many religious apologists would like to believe that those belong to religion, but I certainly don’t believe they belong to fundamentalist religion.

      But the funding, the public dissemination (ie, reporters writing up scientific results for the general public), and the scientists themselves, are all subject to very human emotional and political and economic forces.

      Think of some the major “scientific” controversies around today. Eg, global climate change, nuclear power, and genetically modified organisms. While certainly there is some science at the center of each of these, there is a lot of belief around the edges about who to trust, whether new technology developments will solve these problems, whether new problems will be discovered, etc.

      Eg, is nuclear power safe? Arnie Gunderson is an nuclear engineer who worked in the nuclear industry and was responsible for the cleanup of 3 mile island. ( Today, he is anti-nuclear, and has some very good videos and reports detailing the issues and risks of the fukushima nuclear meltdown.

      Apologists that are pro-nuclear have many of the same arguments that religious people use, eg, selling the future, ie, “the next generation will solve all these problems”, or “that was the old technology, we’re smarter now,” etc. Each of these arguments are not scientific facts, these are selling belief in the future of technology. The arguments are actually quite similar to the arguments religious people use, eg, “they weren’t a real christian” becomes “that was human error”, or “that was a one-time event that will never happen again,” etc. Each of these are rationalizations not scientific facts. Pretending these are “scientific facts” rather value judgements and estimates with extreme costs for being wrong is, in my opinion, foolish.

      Today, Fukushima is dumping 300 tons of highly radioactive waste into the pacific ocean. Presumable the US gov’t and the same people greatly concerned about global climate change should be actively mobilized to try to contain and correct this issue with major ecological impact. Instead, they are ignoring it, refusing to test fish for radiation, etc. In short, their actions belie their lack of concern. Yet think of the arguments, and they will usually be couched in scientific terms, ignoring the political and economic issues, borrowing the prestige of alleged “impartiality” of science. Regardless of which side you fall in the debate, the point is it’s wise to make a clear distinction between what is actual scientific fact, and what is assumptions or beliefs about the future, and what is apologetics for political or economic values that people hold.

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    Basically, I agree also. Science is a word that means both a body of knowledge and a logical process of testing what we think we know in order to confirm or dis-confirm our degree of confidence. It is limited by the fact that only discernible phenomena can be tested. What we should do is in the field of ethics and morality and is not subject to controlled experimentation the way science is.

    As a side note, there is good evidence that the Japanese were also working on an atomic bomb. They are not the victims and us the bad guys in the nuclear debate, contrary to much of their posturing on this issue.

    Sherman said war is hell. War is a sad commentary on the nature of the beast that is called human. Tragically, modern war has become increasingly callous about ‘collateral damage’, a sickening euphemism.

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    I suspect that the practice of science, the continual focus on the method of science would quite possibly affect decisions made by people in the realms of morals and ethics. That is to say, affect their insistence on avoiding being waylaid by these matters while pursuing the scientific method. When a scientist studies the explosive forces of bombs and bullets, they are not studying the very real possibility that this bullet will be used to explode a human life down the road. The ethical decision to continue developing ‘the bomb’ is superseded by science because as Geoff said, the knowledge is out there.
    One might in retrospect as Feynman seems to have done, suggest that focussing on completing the scientific task at hand was ill-informed in a moral sense but I disagree. Knowledge is forever pushing the envelope to challenge what we ‘know’ as true. This is a necessary and very human endeavor, as is the penchant to excess in things. Not without regard but in spite of this, science must move on with what Feynman calls, “utter scientific integrity” and not rely on feelings imposed by inner and outer human forces.
    There is a perfectly human reason why the early church denied the free access to scripture to the people. The church has always been the rich middle-man in religious matters and it was always a monopoly well-worth maintaining. Vatican City is full of treasures, full of restricted histories and the riches of the ages. (Televangelists with jets are included here!)
    Science is the enemy of belief because it simply refuses to stop following the evidence as it goes along. Religion then uses science to further its own goals by condemning outcomes that essentially have nothing to do with science but with the human application of knowledge as it is proven true. Science cannot accept the assumptions at the basis of belief without proofs. It demands the unpacking of these feelings and ideas to better understand the phenomenon of belief. Of course, as belief is unpacked, what is revealed is the dark and stained-glass covers of religion, the basic disrespect it builds into its structure, the harms to women, to children, to all of us finally. These harms are painted up and displayed as love and caring, Islam as a religion of peace, Christianity and its prince of peace. As time goes on and scientific enquiry continues, the history of religion will more clearly be shown to be directly attached to the caves of man, our origins coming out of the dark. People will marvel at the hideous nature of God and the great fears suffered by people whose science was in its infancy. We will be able to see more clearly how the damage of the ages passes on through generations, how people who beat children, for instance, pass on that harm to their progeny and how that ignorance and pain is supported by belief systems, by the authorities!
    I do not mean to suggest by any means that science is some kind of better salvation than religion; not at all. Religion is not salvation but a viral self-destruction. Science surely gives us more and more knowledge over time and increases our possibilities but that necessarily includes our penchant for human excess as well, our endless wars, our baggage of disdain for innocence. Science steadily continues to peel the onion, eyes open and senses at the ready. Religion plugs up the senses as evil. The preacher looks out over the masses and says, Bow your heads and close your eyes.

    • Avatar
      Kindred Spirits

      Re: “The ethical decision to continue developing ‘the bomb’ is superseded by science because as Geoff said, the knowledge is out there.”

      So, would you apply the same principle to the German scientists that were working on atomic bombs? What about the German scientists that were studying ways to build the gas chambers? What about scientists in North Korea today? And what about non-scientists working for Nazi Germany, do they have a “it would have happened anyway” get out-of-jail-free card too?

      Or is it only Americans that get this waiver, since we’re the shining beacon on the hill, bringing truth and democracy and freedom to the world? If so, perhaps this is just another religion called American Exceptionalism?

      In the last couple years, it’s been declassified that the CIA toppled the democratically elected gov’t of Iran back in the 1950’s to install the Shah of Iran as a US puppet. More recently, it’s alleged that the CIA toppled the democratically elected gov’t of Ukraine. There are numerous other allegations of CIA dirty tricks towards various gov’ts around the world. Is the US really a shining beacon of freedom?

      The point is not to argue one way or the other, but to point out that once you’ve seen through the oversimplifications of fundamentalist Christianity, there’s a still a lot of other propaganda and misconstrued narratives that you have to sort through. Ie, once you see that “God said….” is really, “Unknown authors, writing in Greek not Hebrew/Aramaic, in books claimed to speak for God, and selected by a political process, and interpreted in a political process where the losers are persecuted for heresy, and ….” which is a radically different and more complex understanding.

      Now you have to see through the same sorts of propaganda about nationalism/patriotism, the different political parties, the vested interests of different interest groups within the country, etc.

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    Yes, the onion peels layer by layer. I don’t want to suggest giving ‘a pass’ to America in any way. I think that science will move on and that it should do so. Because somebody studies effeciency in murder using science, does not mean that science is at fault in any way. The excesses of people are duly noted and America has very dirty hands, of course. I am not sure who was suggesting that USA was a beacon of freedom because that is one huge and very bad joke.
    By the way, there is no get out of jail card in lfe, only Monopoly. We use science to plod after truth because it can be proven wrong and improved on, unlike belief. Belief is fixed in place and shuts down the senses, the necessary human faculties that would reject it out of hand if allowed to flourish. I began to question belief and it fell apart over time, just fell to pieces around me. I think your parallel to nationalism/patriotism is particularly apt and especially so for USA. Is there another country so blinded by flags?

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