Feynman on the Scientific Method

This short extract from one of Richard Feynman’s lectures provides a great example of how he inspired generations of eager young minds.

His concise and entertaining explanation of the workings of the scientific method makes clear that it cannot be applied to a theory that is incapable of being disproved.

The IPCC was established with the single purpose of proving man’s influence in driving catastrophic global warming (through the release of anthropogenic CO2). It represents the complete antithesis of the method.

The next time someone tells you that man-made global warming is proven I would reply with confidence that the eminent Feynman would have disagreed.

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3 thoughts on “Feynman on the Scientific Method

  1. The first 60 seconds are a clear statement of the scientific method. For those interested in global warming the following at about 5.10 perhaps more pertinent.

    You cannot prove a vague theory wrong. If the guess that you make is poorly expressed and the method you have for computing the consequences is a little vague then ….. you see that the theory is good as it can’t be proved wrong. If the process of computing the consequences is indefinite, then with a little skill any experimental result can be made to look like an expected consequence.
    You are probably familiar with that in other fields. For example “A hates his mother”. The reason is, of course that she did not caress him or love him enough when he was a child.
    Actually, if you investigate you find out that, as a matter of fact, she did love him very much and everything was all right.
    Well then it was because she was over-indulgent. So by having a vague theory it is possible to get either result.

    I find a striking similarity with the idea that increased snowfall in the Northern Hemisphere in the last four or five years, or the recent increase in Antarctic sea ice, as consequence of anthropogenic global warming. It all stems from the very human trait to dress-up generalisations based on unfounded beliefs with a covering of superiority derived from scientism and agreement by self-proclaimed expert opinion.

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  2. After Feynman’s definition of the scientific method in the first 60 seconds, he went on to say about taking “guesses”. As an illustration he recounted a conversation about flying saucers with a “Layman”.

    F : I don’t think there are flying saucers.
    L: Is it impossible that are not any flying saucers? Can you prove there are no flying saucers?
    F: No I can’t prove it’s impossible – it’s just very unlikely.
    L: You are very unscientific. If you can’t prove it’s impossible, then how can you say it is unlikely?
    It is only scientific to say what is more likely and less likely, and not to be able to prove to all the time what is possible and impossible.

    To define what he meant Feynman eventually said to the layman:-

    F: I mean from my knowledge of the world that I see around me, I think that it is much more likely that the reports of flying saucers are the results of the known irrational characteristics of terrestrial intelligence than the unknown rational efforts of extra-terrestrial intelligence.

    Similarly, from my own knowledge from years of studying the issue, I believe the forecasts of catastrophic global warming are the result of the known irrational outpourings of people with dogmatic beliefs, rather than the output resulting from the artificial and incomprehensible super-intelligence of computer models.

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