In Science, “the Fate of What We Say and Make is in Later Users’ Hands”

by Joseph Shieber

1. There’s something ironic about the fact that the received wisdom about science is that science teaches us not to trust received wisdom. Or, to paraphrase a recent blog post that seems oblivious to this irony: “Scientific expert opines, ‘Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.’”

I should be fair to Daniel Lemire, the author of that blog post. He does a good job of spelling out the received wisdom about science, as well as of reflecting the orthodox opinion about the scientific expert that Lemire takes as his authority, the Nobel prizewinning physicist, lock-picker, and bongo-player, Richard Feynman.

Unfortunately, Lemire is wrong on both points: the received wisdom about science is hopelessly naive and, far from being a univocal opponent of the importance of expert opinion, Feynman was himself rather confused about the role of iconoclasm in science.

2. Let me begin by tackling the second, in some sense less interesting, point concerning Feynman interpretation.

Far from being of the opinion that all scientists should be iconoclasts who question the experts, the bulk of Feynman’s writing is far more nuanced than the pull-quotes that are turned into the posters that adorn undergraduate science majors’ dorm rooms.

Before appealing to Feynman as an authority on the nature of science, it is worthwhile to keep in mind that Feynman’s field of expertise isn’t the nature of science itself, but theoretical physics. This is important, since, as Feynman himself noted, “In order to talk about the impact of ideas in one field on ideas in another field one is always apt to be an idiot of one kind or another. In these days of specialization, there are few people who have such a deep knowledge of two departments of our understanding that they don’t make fools of themselves in one or the other.” (“The Uncertainty of Science,” John Danz Lecture Series, 1963)

With that in mind, we can appreciate the ways in which slogans like, “science is the belief in the ignorance of experts,” do an injustice to Feynman’s own insights about the nature of science. I’ll briefly sketch five ways in which this is true.

First, Feynman recognized that it is good for science that at least some scientists pursue the popular theories, the ones that the recognized experts believe to be most likely correct:

It’s very important that we do not all follow the same fashion. Because although it’s ninety percent sure that the answer lies over there, where [Murray] Gell-Mann is working, what happens if it doesn’t, and if everybody’s doing this?

    – CERN talk, December 1965

The world goes around because of differences of opinion and interests resulting in a division of labor — even volunteer labor. I hope everyone does not think as I do — if I found out they did, I would change my view. For from this variety of approaches real progress must come. We must try everything.

    – Letter to John M. Fowler, March 1966

Indeed, in a comment reminiscent of Philip Kitcher’s theory of rationality for scientific researchers, Feynman suggests that younger scientists should think of their choice of a research program in terms of a bet: “The odds that your theory will be in fact right and that the general thing that everybody’s working on will be right, is low. But the odds that you, Little Boy Schmidt, will be the guy who figures a thing out, is not smaller.” (CERN talk, December 1965) 

As Kitcher has shown, science is more likely to advance when individual researchers pursue different strategies, with some being more risk tolerant and others more risk averse. Those who are more risk tolerant are more often unsuccessful, but occasionally they are spectacularly successful. Those who are more risk averse are more likely to find evidence to confirm their views, but are less likely to achieve the sorts of dramatic discoveries that result in widespread acclaim.

Second, Feynman was aware that science is a cooperative endeavor, one in which success is at least in part measured in gaining the recognition of one’s peers that one’s approach is worth merit:

In science (unlike business or any other pursuits) we are all working together cooperating to try to understand Nature and we have learned to be very careful to recognize and commend anybody who gets a really useful new idea.

    – Letter to Dr. Rafael Dy-Liacco, June 1978 (Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track, p. 321)

Third, Feynman seemed also aware of the fact that the way in which science progresses is often opaque to the scientists themselves:

At each meeting it always seems to me that very little progress is made. Nevertheless, if you look over any reasonable length of time, a few years say, you find a fantastic progress and it is hard to understand how that can happen at the same time that nothing is happening in any one moment. I think that it is something like the way clouds change in the sky — they gradually fade out here and build up there and if you look later it is different.

    – Program of American Physical Society Annual Meeting, 1950

Note that the second and third points stand in some tension to each other. If, as the third point suggests, scientists are unaware of the mechanisms by which science progresses, then it will not always be possible to, as the second point puts it, “be very careful to recognize and commend anybody who gets a really useful new idea.” This is the source of what has come to be known as “Stigler’s Law of Eponymy”, according to which scientific discoveries are often misattributed. (In a neat move, Stigler suggests that his own “law” is an example of itself, since he claims that the discovery of the phenomenon of scientific misattribution is actually due to Robert Merton.)

Fourth, Feynman – in the very same lecture from which Lemire took the title of his blog post, “science is the belief in the ignorance of experts” – actually recognized that science cannot simply involve the rejection of expert opinion (emphasis mine):

It is necessary to teach both to accept and to reject the past with a kind of balance that takes considerable skill.

    – National Science Teachers Association Fourteenth Convention lecture, “What Is Science?” April 1966

Finally, Feynman seems to recognize that the success of science cannot rely on the virtue of individual scientists:

I would like to point out that people are not honest. Scientists are not honest at all, either. It’s useless. Nobody’s honest. Scientists are not honest. And people usually believe that they are. That makes it worse. By honest I don’t mean that you will only tell what’s true. But you make clear the entire situation. You make clear all the information that is required for somebody else who is intelligent to make up their mind.

    – “The Unscientific Age,” John Danz Lecture Series, 1963

If, as Feynman seems at the beginning of this quote to recognize, “Scientists are not honest at all, either,” then the success of science cannot depend on the virtue of individual scientists – including their adoption of a rigorously questioning attitude toward experts. Unfortunately, by the end of this quote, Feynman fails to appreciate the way out of this puzzle, falling back on the idea that science involves adhering to individual standards of virtuous communicative behavior.

[A minor quibble: Lemire suggests that “Feynman clearly believed that the idea of science was applicable to education.” This is – particularly in light of the “clearly” – simply false. Compare: “Nobody knows how to teach physics, or to educate people — that’s a fact, and if you don’t like the way it’s being done, that’s perfectly natural. It’s impossible to teach satisfactorily: For hundreds of years, even more, people have been trying to figure out how to teach, and nobody has ever figured it out.” (Feynman’s Tips on Physics, p. 15)]

3. Feynman seems almost to have recognized that the progress of science cannot depend on the heroic virtues of individual scientists, but then, at the last minute, he seems incapable of appreciating what this would mean and falls back on a prescription of “honesty” for scientists. In this, he shows himself to be in thrall to a “great man” theory of scientific progress. What matters is the INDIVIDUAL scientist and his behavior, his achievements.

Lemire follows Feynman in this. Lemire, to his credit, clearly lists four lessons he takes from Feynman:

1. “… experts are routinely wrong, often in unexpected ways …”

2. “Since the beginning of time, we have also given this process of knowledge-from-expertise physical forms. In modern day civilization, we have the peer-reviewed article, the professor at their university, the government scientist in a laboratory coat. In many ways, these people play the same social role as the tribe elder or the priest. The peer-reviewed article is like a sacred text.”*

3. “This pre-existing knowledge and its transmission is often called “science”. In such a context, anything can be a science: political science, social science, religious science, and so forth. But whether the knowledge is true or false, it may have little to do with science. It may even be that these institutions that pretend to be about science are unscientific. The fundamental defining characteristic of science, the one that Feynman explicitly identifies, is that we do not decide whether something is true or false based on authority but rather based on experience. If someone tells you that there are 24 pairs of chromosomes, you have a duty to ask ‘how do they know?’, ‘how would I find out?’.”

4, “For science… It does not matter whether you are young, old. You can be rich or poor. You can be schooled or not. But you must listen, learn and be patient. In effect, you need to be a constructive skeptic. And you must question your own ideas with even more effort than you question other ideas.”

* Compare Feynman: “Usually when we publish things, things that we publish in the technical journals are very carefully polished and all of the routes and side alleys and back thoughts and so on that you had are taken out. You do not describe your personal adventure and succession of ideas. Any references that are given are given to the first man who thought of the thing, not the guy who told you about it, and so on.” (CERN talk, December 1965)

Note that all of these lessons have to do with a single inquirer’s – “your” – duties: since (1) “experts are routinely wrong, often in unsuspected ways,” and since (2) the physical forms of “knowledge-from-expertise … play the same social role as the tribe elder or priest,” (3) “YOU have a duty to ask ‘how do they know?’”; (4) “In effect, YOU need to be a constructive skeptic.” (My emphases)

Like the hagiographic scientist biographies that I consumed as a child, Lemire’s framing invites you to see yourself as the “great man,” embodying the virtues that constitute the TRUE NATURE OF SCIENCE.

This framing, however, is completely false. Newton wasn’t being a scientist when, early in his career, he withdrew from the debates of natural philosophy in a pique, resolving to keep his research for himself. In a letter to Oldenburg (quoted in Gribbin’s The Scientists, p. 198), Newton wrote, “I see I have made myself a slave to [natural] philosophy … I will resolutely bid adieu to it eternally, except what I do for my private satisfaction, or leave it to come after me; for I see a man must either resolve to put out nothing new, or become a slave to defend it.”

What Newton failed to appreciate is that the business of “putting out” one’s work AND defending it IS part of the scientific enterprise. The solitary genius who knows, for himself, that he is correct and that all others are wrong is a crank or a guru, but not a scientist. This vision of the scientist as solitary genius who needs nothing of the recognition of others, however, is a direct result of the “great man” theory of science.

At the outset of his The Pasteurization of France, the recently deceased Bruno Latour begins with a discussion of Tolstoy’s treatment of Napoleon in War and Peace. Tolstoy’s achievement, according to Latour, is to debunk the “great man” theory of history, to demonstrate the ways in which any world historical event requires the participation of many actors, rather than just a heroic few. Latour goes on to demand that the history of science needs a similar treatment:

It takes Tolstoy some eight hundred pages to give back to the multitude the effectiveness that historians of his century placed in the virtue or genius of a few men. Tolstoy succeeded, and the whole of recent history supports his theories as to the relative importance of great men in relation to the overall movements that are represented or appropriated by a few eponymous figures. This is true at least where politicians are concerned. When we are dealing with scientists, we still admire the great genius and virtue of one man and too rarely suspect the importance of forces that made him great. We may admit that in the technological or scientific fields a multitude of people is necessary to diffuse the discoveries made and the machines invented. But surely not to create them! The great man is alone in his laboratory, alone with his concepts, and he revolutionizes the society around him by the power of his mind alone. Why is it so difficult to gain acceptance, in the case of the great men of science, for what is taken as self-evident in the case of great statesmen? (Pasteurization of France, pp. 13–14)

Latour here suggests that “a multitude of people is necessary to DIFFUSE the discoveries made,” but this actually mischaracterizes the role of the multitude in science. A discovery isn’t a discovery at all until it has been CONFIRMED by the wider scientific community.

A notorious example of this is the confirmation of Einstein’s general theory of relativity by Eddington’s (and Dyson’s) expeditions to Africa (and Brazil) to test the theory. Einstein’s theory predicts that the massive gravity of the sun will bend light, so Eddington proposed to send two teams – one, Eddington’s, to Principe, off the coast of Africa, and the other, Dyson’s, to Sobral, in Brazil – to compare telescopic images of stars taken during an eclipse with images of those same stars taken later, without the presumed distortion from the sun’s gravity. If Einstein’s theory was correct, Eddington and Dyson should have observed slight deviations between the positions of the stars seen during the eclipse and the positions of those same stars in the normal night sky.

From the Illustrated London Times 1919

This, indeed, is exactly what Eddington and Dyson reported. On November 6, 1919, Eddington and Dyson publicized their results at a joint meeting of the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society. Newspapers around the world trumpeted the findings; Einstein became an international celebrity.

I say that this is what Eddington and Dyson reported, but there is controversy surrounding whether this is actually what they observed.

General relativity predicted that the stars nearest to the sun would appear 1.75 arc seconds (a miniscule distance – slightly less than a fingernail seen from a half mile away) closer to the sun’s rim during the eclipse.

In Principe, Eddington was plagued by bad weather and was only able to photograph five stars. Eddington, who was an avid proponent of Einstein’s theory, wrote to his mother, “The one good plate that I measured gave a result agreeing with Einstein, and I think I have got a little confirmation from a second plate.” He settled on a result of 1.61 arc seconds.

Dyson’s team, though more successful in gathering images, was no more successful in achieving a univocal result. The larger of their two telescopes lost focus during the eclipse, but recorded values of 0.93 arc seconds – very close to the Newtonian prediction of 0.87 arc seconds. The smaller of the two telescopes, which had been borrowed from a local English Jesuit priest, remained in focus and recorded a value of 1.98 arc seconds.

So Dyson and Eddington were faced with the question of how to determine which of their readings should be dispositive. Eventually, Eddington – the Einstein enthusiast – convinced Dyson that they should throw out the 0.93 arc second result from the larger of the two Sobral telescopes.

The Eddington expeditions underscore two facts about science. The first is that it is not so simple as, to use Lemire’s formulation, coming to “decide whether something is true or false [not] based on authority but rather based on experience.” Science also requires choices in determining what experience is telling us and which experiences to heed and which to discard. These choices themselves are not choices that should be met by individuals, but rather by the scientific community as a whole.

The second fact, as Latour puts it in Science in Action, is that in science, “the fate of what we say and make is in later users’ hands.” (Science in Action, p. 29) What cemented Einstein’s position in the pantheon of physics was the work of Eddington, Dyson, and later researchers who were able to confirm the predictions of Einstein’s theories.

4. It is important to emphasize that appreciating the role of the scientific community in recognizing scientific facts does NOT require thinking that facts themselves are “socially constructed” or not objective.

To see this, consider a recent essay on Latour in n+1, published on the event of Latour’s death. The author, Ava Kofman, writes approvingly that, “Facts, in Latour’s view, don’t exist ‘out there,’ waiting to be discovered or understood. They are the hard-won products of scientific work, the result of a long and often contentious process of collecting data, negotiating controversy, and translating the consensus into papers that are read, judged, and, if all goes smoothly, replicated by scores of other scientists.”

Although accurate as a gloss of Latour’s view of the matter, this passage involves a glaring false dichotomy. It is possible for it to be the case BOTH that facts “exist ‘out there,’ waiting to be discovered” AND that “they are the hard-won products of scientific work, the result of a long and often contentious process of collecting data, negotiating controversy, and translating the consensus into papers that are read, judged, and, if all goes smoothly, replicated by scores of other scientists.”

Indeed, it seems to me that the true lesson of science is that, however imperfect, the best strategy that we have discovered for unearthing the facts is the “long and often contentious process of collecting data, negotiating controversy, and translating the consensus into papers that are read, judged, and, if all goes smoothly, replicated by scores of other scientists.” That, in fact, is a far better account of what science is.