The Dim-Post

February 7, 2010

The stage is too big for the drama

Filed under: science — danylmc @ 7:46 am

lprent has a post up responding to Poneke’s blogs about climate change, and some of his points reminded me of a famous lecture by Richard Feynman on science. He said:

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.

Governments don’t draft policy relating to negatively charged particles but if they did then we’d probably have had a huge ‘controversy’ about what the real charge of an electron was, how the lepton hoax was part of a global conspiracy, whether the weak nuclear interaction was real or faked, allegations that quantum mechanics was just drummed up to get grant money and so on. Science and scientists should strike for perfection – but they’ll never attain it, and it’s not responsible to ignore scientific findings on the basis of trivial mistakes in the process.

Feynman’s whole lecture is worth reading. The word genius gets thrown around a lot these days, but he really was a stone cold genius.

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15 Comments »

  1. I recall having to run Millikan’s experiment at university. It stuck me as pretty dodgy at the time, though I didn’t do that well in physics so what do I know? But I’m pleased to hear this.
    There’s a similar story about the use of the 1910 eclipse to verify Einstein’s General Relativity. Dubious results.
    Thanks for the link, it is indeed worth reading.

    Comment by Roger Parkinson — February 7, 2010 @ 8:41 am

  2. We sometimes forget that science is done by people – i.e. scientists. And they can be all too human. Peer review is flawed, but it’s the best system we have. Reviewers have vested interests or ingrained thinking, and are not open to new concepts. But new work, over time, does make its way into the literature.

    And I have a Feynman story. Many years ago (I won’t say HOW many :-p), I attended an undergraduate physics conference (yes, I am a physicist). Feynman was invited to be the keynote speaker, but didn’t bother answering any of the letters or phone calls. So the President of the local undergrad physics society convinced the department and uni administrations to pay for a ticket to Feynman’s office to meet him face-to-face. So when this gorgeous intelligent young woman (yep, it’s true) walked into Feynman’s office – he accepted the invitation immediately! Many aspects of his reputation are true. But then it adds some spice to the personality who is involved in the science.

    Comment by David in Chch — February 7, 2010 @ 8:55 am

  3. Thanks for the Feynman. I quite liked the bit about discarded rat maze observations and how replicating past experiments for control purposes was ‘unproductive’.

    Comment by Will de Cleene — February 7, 2010 @ 8:57 am

  4. Oh, and P.S. There ARE abuses and misuses of the system. There are reports circulating about a few journals where the editor and publisher are colluding to artificially enhance the journal’s impact factor. Sad, but it does happen, and reflects badly on the entire system. The flip side, of course, is that such behaviour _does_ get exposed.

    Comment by David in Chch — February 7, 2010 @ 8:57 am

  5. I was first introduced to the amazing Feynman when I tripped over this video of his Auckland University gig in 1979:

    http://dev.vega.org.uk/video/programme/45

    The ridicule and disbelief from his audience is quite interesting.

    Comment by Will de Cleene — February 7, 2010 @ 9:02 am

  6. Personally, I don’t like the fact that the Government just takes at face value the claims by self-interested scientists and electricity promoters that there are such things as electrons. In the absence of an independent commission (one not loaded with scientists who already believe the theory), we should treat these claims with suspicion.

    Comment by George Darroch — February 7, 2010 @ 3:47 pm

  7. So Feynman’s basic thesis was ‘scientists aren’t very good.’?

    Comment by Graeme Edgeler — February 7, 2010 @ 7:23 pm

  8. We’re now a long way off from Danyl “the science is settled” from 2008. Fascinating.

    Maybe the scientists only got the sign wrong, how human after all!

    But it’s utter conjecture if Richard Feynman would consider Phil Jones to be someone trying to get the charge of the electron right. I think it’s more likely he would consider him a scientist who was running another rat maze experiment. Or would Phil Jones be waving flags at cargo aircraft? Danyl might well reflect what kind of science and what kind of scientists he is defending. There are several kinds as he could have learned from this article.

    Comment by Berend de Boer — February 8, 2010 @ 5:50 am

  9. And for others who have not been blinded by “the science is settled”, please see this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_EZcpTTjjXY

    Comment by Berend de Boer — February 8, 2010 @ 5:52 am

  10. Yes, Berend, we’ve made the staggering fallback from ‘settled’ to ‘as correct as humanly possible’.

    Comment by lyndon — February 8, 2010 @ 9:15 am

  11. Science being settled is one thing – the accuracy of what they settle on is another… That they are sometimes in the same ballpark is a fascinating phenomenon…

    Comment by Sam — February 8, 2010 @ 11:21 am

  12. Science is only believable, trustworthy and “settled” when there are zero dissenting voices, right Berend?

    I’m going to cancel that sailing trip I’m taking next weekend then…

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flat_Earth_Society

    Comment by garethw — February 8, 2010 @ 11:59 am

  13. So Danyl is having doubts about AGW? Is this the thrust of your post?

    The first principle is that you must not fool yourself–and you are
    the easiest person to fool.”

    UEA’s CRU and the “trick” with the inconvenient tree ring data?
    The melting glaciers that aren’t necessarily melting at all?
    That temperatures are not currently increasing, not since 1998-ish?

    For example, I was a little surprised when I was talking to a
    friend who was going to go on the radio. He does work on cosmology
    and astronomy, and he wondered how he would explain what the
    applications of this work were. “Well,” I said, “there aren’t any.”
    He said, “Yes, but then we won’t get support for more research of
    this kind.” I think that’s kind of dishonest. If you’re
    representing yourself as a scientist, then you should explain to
    the layman what you’re doing–and if they don’t want to support you
    under those circumstances, then that’s their decision.

    Yes, that sounds like a lot of the researchers studying gophers “with regard to the effect of climate change thereon”.

    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.

    I’m not sure that disease has been cured. Look at the way dissent with MMGW has been handled: at first ignored, then ridiculed, now only gaining in momentum as it becomes clear that voicing a dissenting opinion to the orthodoxy won’t necessarily end your career.

    So I have just one wish for you–the good luck to be somewhere
    where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have
    described, and where you do not feel forced by a need to maintain
    your position in the organization, or financial support, or so on,
    to lose your integrity. May you have that freedom.

    Indeed.

    I couldn’t help but think of computer climate models when reading this lecture and that Prof Feynman would be a sceptic.

    Comment by Clunking Fist — February 8, 2010 @ 1:02 pm

  14. “Science and scientists should strike for perfection – but they’ll never attain it, and it’s not responsible to ignore scientific findings on the basis of trivial mistakes in the process.”

    Like ignoring the data from Siberian weather stations which show no warming?

    :^)

    Comment by Clunking Fist — February 8, 2010 @ 1:06 pm

  15. I’m not sure if ya’all are keeping up with the developments in the field of AGW. Have a read of this, esp the comments:

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/environment/article7017922.ece

    Comment by Clunking Fist — February 8, 2010 @ 5:48 pm


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