Surely You’re Joking….

This is the coolest stamp ever :

This coincides with a interesting survey that was conducted by the British website Spiked in which 250 scientists were asked “If you could teach the world just one thing…”. The answers are all over the place, but a few specifically mentioned the Richard Feynman :
The American physicist Richard Feynman considered a similar question, in his Lectures on Physics: ‘If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words?’ His answer? The atom is the fundamental structure of matter: ‘All things are made of atoms – little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another.’
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Feynman’s richly compact answer, ‘all things are made of atoms’, contains a codicil: ‘In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.’ Imagination and thinking? A recent survey of 3,000 people in the UK, by the marketing company Tickbox, finds that two-thirds of those between 18 and 24 years old ‘believe in the power of horoscopes’.

And that brings me to this interesting Feynman quote that appeared recently over at the Panda’s Thumb. Though it’s used in discussion of Intelligent Design there, I think it equally applies to astrology and any other sort of crackpot pseudoscience :

You can see, of course, that with this method we can attempt to disprove any definite theory. If we have a definite theory, a real guess, from which we can conveniently compute consequences which can be compared with experiment, then in principle we can get rid of any theory. There is always the possibility of proving any definite theory wrong; but notice that we can never prove it right. Suppose that you invent a good guess, calculate the consequences, and discover every time that the consequences you have calculated agree with experiment. The theory is then right? No, it is simply not proved wrong.
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Another thing I must point out is that you cannot prove a vague theory wrong. If the guess that you make is poorly expressed and rather vague, and the method that you use for figuring out the consequences is a little vague – you are not sure, and you say, ?I think everything?s right because it?s all due to so and so, and such and such[,] do this and that more or less, and I can sort of explain how this works ??, then you see that this theory is good, because it cannot be proved wrong! Also if the process of computing the consequences is indefinite, then with a little skill any experimental results can be made to look like the expected consequences.

Which ultimately takes us back to the problem with ESP, ID, horoscopes, and other scientific hogwash. To go back to another great answer from the Spiked survey, the difference between science and other fields is falsifiability :

I think the most important fact about science is that all scientific theories are falsifiable. Science represents our best attempt to understand the way the world works. Science involves lots of theories, but it is not really based upon theory. All of today’s theories may go the way of the one described by the nineteenth-century British biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, ‘a beautiful hypothesis’ slain ‘by an ugly fact’.

Despite this, it is important to bear in mind that today’s best scientific theories are exactly that – the best explanation of the world in which we live. On that basis, we should believe them, at least until any ugly new facts emerge. This is what makes science different from religion, metaphysics, philosophy or mysticism. It is not that science’s theories hold any higher logical ground – some of the deepest ideas in physics are very illogical, or at least counterintuitive. It is just that science’s theories are falsifiable, whereas other theories are not.

Our scientific theories have benefited from hundreds of years of being knocked about, attacked, chipped away, smashed and reformed by further experimentation and observation, to arrive at today’s consensus. Not all of today’s science may be right, but you can bet that a lot more of it is right than are the ideas from other areas of human endeavour.

So…what was I saying again? Oh yeah, that Feynman stamp is awesome.

One thought on “Surely You’re Joking….

  1. That is truly excellent. If everyone had read Surely You’re Joking, this would be such a better country.