A person that in recent years I’ve been studying about is the theoretical physicist Richard Feynman. He died in 1988 and collected a life of adventures and scientific accomplishments including a Nobel Prize in Physics. I’m reading one book about him called The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard Feynman. The book it’s a collection of lectures, talks, and interviews given by the physicist, each one showing different sides of Feynman. The intelligent physicist. The brilliant professor. The young student that ended up working on the atomic bomb project. The insubordinate physicist, unable to follow the protection rules of the government agents when recruited to work on classified projects. And so on.
Chapter 4 of the book recounts a talk that he gave in 1964. Feynman speaks about science, religion, philosophy, and reflects how we can determine the future of the civilization. Parts of this talk resonated with me, so much is still accurate and I would like to humbly comment on some of his words and make a parallel with our world today.
Feynman believed that the most dangerous thing on the horizon of our society would be the resurgence of ideas of thought control. At the time, World War II was already over and the Soviet Union and the United States alongside their respective allies went through a Cold War period where there was no direct fight between them. It’s quite understandable why the man who helped in the creation of the atomic bomb feared ideas of thought control. However, although we all fear the rise of a centralized entity as the guardian of the truth, his point is that many other serious threats circle the modern society. One of them being:
…science is irrelevant… It isn’t that it has to be, but that we let it be irrelevant to society.
We know that science is not irrelevant, the heartwood of the matter is that is not required from the regular person to know science in order to have a full life. People can be incredibly ignorant and still not get into difficulties in modern society.
Besides the usual applications, people don’t quite use scientific methods in daily life. We know how our brains may perceive situations differently from what they really are, we know that we are ruled by bias which we mostly don’t know and neither perceive. As a consequence most of the time, we make instinctive decisions when we rather make rational decisions. To go one step further, science provides us investigation techniques to audit our decisions sort to speak. Yet we still don’t use it.
The reason Feynman says science is irrelevant is that “the environment is actively, intensely, unscientific”. Opinions are enough for an unbelievable amount of people. He goes on, in the face of a problem, before taking any action, you must no know the answer to that problem. However, if you know the answer there’s no need to investigate, gather information, and take any further steps. A scientist is never certain. The results of scientific analysis are approximate statements with different degrees of certainty according to the evidence.
See if you agree with me. We seemed to live in a society where there are no doubts/questions/uncertainties. Everyone appears to have the right answer. Even better, everyone appears to have their own right answers. I’m not saying that this is bad or is the cause of the unscientific environment, at a certain level, yes, everyone has their own truths. Feynman’s explanation of the unscientific environment is the existence of massive acceptance of pseudo-science in our daily lives. He mentions telepathy, faith-healing religions, the miracle at Lourdes, and astrology. His point? It may even be truth that going to the dentist on the day Mars is at right angles to Venus is better than any other day, and if it is, we should investigate it, improve it, make powerful systems by investigating statistically and scientifically judging the evidence. And after we make one experiment with no promising results, we will repeat it, to the point that if we made a thousand experiments and no different conclusion was demonstrated we began to understand how the world works.
How can we do this if we don’t have questions? We can’t even take the first step into the investigation. That’s where his point about the irrelevance of science cames from, to a believer it doesn’t matter which astrological phenomena are behind the astrology advise. The believer will just believe. While science is the key to a full understanding of the world, science will put into the correct framework the wonder that nature is.
Two years ago I would say that this quote of science is irrelevant in our society is extremely misleading and with low damage potential. Not at all up to competition with ideas of thought control. By observing this self-isolation times in face of the coronavirus I’m can see (every day) that I was completely wrong. We have presidents acting as advertises to **untested** drugs, we have presidents (sadly my president) taking measures against social isolation in order to “save” the economy. We have politics using a virus that killed thousands of people all over the world as a conspiracy to destroy the strong (sarcasm here) economy of Brazil. There’s a hate for science, data, statistics, and any other form of knowledge. Mainly because the regular citizen could go through life without having any problems caused by its own lack of understanding. Big setback for Brazil that such limited man is the leader of the nation. This lack of qualification that is excusable to the ordinary man, is homicidal to a president.
The chapter concludes by stating that science is irrelevant to society by the omission of the scientists, who never bothered to argue with “believers”. Feynman was making a call to the scientific community to be more open and to tackle pseudo-sciences upfront. I will stop here, ending with the dangers of a society where science is irrelevant. These are the days we live today.