Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts

Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts said Richard Feynman. Feynman had a Nobel prize in physics. He was a remarquable educator: his lecture notes are still popular. He foresaw nanotechnology and quantum computing. He is credited with identifying the cause of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. There is a beautiful talk by his daughter and there are many interviews with his sister who became a physicist herself. I read Feynman as a young adult and it has shaped my worldview ever since.

Let me put the Feynman’s quote in context:

Science alone of all the subjects contains within itself the lesson of the danger of belief in the infallibility of the greatest teachers in the preceding generation (…) When someone says, “Science teaches such and such,” he is using the word incorrectly. Science doesn’t teach anything; experience teaches it. If they say to you, “Science has shown such and such,” you might ask, “How does science show it? How did the scientists find out? How? What? Where?” It should not be “science has shown” but “this experiment, this effect, has shown.” And you have as much right as anyone else, upon hearing about the experiments–but be patient and listen to all the evidence–to judge whether a sensible conclusion has been arrived at. (…) The experts who are leading you may be wrong. (…) I think we live in an unscientific age in which almost all the buffeting of communications and television-words, books, and so on-are unscientific. As a result, there is a considerable amount of intellectual tyranny in the name of science.

Many people, including people with a PhD and a career in research, miss Feynman’s point. Let me decompose it.

  1. How do we know anything? The most common, age-old, approach is to acquire knowledge from a figure of authority or an expert. Your teacher, your mother, your boss. But these experts are routinely wrong, often in unexpected ways:
    • Back in 1955, experts and textbooks told you that human beings have 24 pairs of chromosomes, even though there were always 23 pairs. Admittedly, it can be hard to count chromosomes, but importantly, the consensus settled on the wrong value and it took 30 years for a challenge to arise.
    • Before the 1960s, plate tectonics was often ridiculed. Fewer than 20% of geologists accepted the idea of continental drift in the early 1960 and Pellegrini (2019) tells us that hardly any critic of the idea changed their mind (adopted continental drift). We collectively changed our mind because younger geologists adopted the continental drift theory.
    • In 1998, the Nobel prize recipient Paul Krugman predicted that the Internet would have a small effect (“The growth of the Internet will slow drastically (…) By 2005, it will become clear that the Internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s.”)
    • Heinrich Herz claimed that radio waves were of no use whatsoever.
    • Orville Wright who literally invented the aeroplane said in 1908 that “No airship will ever fly from New York to Paris. That seems to me to be impossible. What limits the flight is the motor. No known motor can run at the requisite speed for four days without stopping, and you can’t be sure of finding the proper winds for soaring. ” In July 6, 1919, a British airship crossed the Atlantic. Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic in an aeroplane less than 20 years later after Orville’s statement.
  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.
    Paul Graham puts it well:

    To be a successful scientist it’s not enough just to be right. You have to be right when everyone else is wrong. Conventional-minded people can’t do that.

Interestingly, once you have appreciated science’s true nature as defined by Feynman, you see that it is generally applicable and not limited to Physics. In fact, Feynman clearly believed that the idea of science was applicable to education, for example.

Unfortunately, Feynman was correct. We live in an unscientific civilization. Science survives in niches.

Here are a few unscientific behaviours that are frustratingly common:

  1. Teach science as a large set of facts and techniques. I claim that hardly any science at all gets taught in high school. You tell kids that matter is made of atoms which are made of small nucleus surrounded by electrons, at different energy levels. That was taught to one of my sons in high school. Then I asked “how do the scientists know this?” Blank stare. Science is not learning about the charge of the electron by reading a book. If that is all it were, it would be no different than pre-scientific knowledge. No. Science begins when you ask yourself how we can verify what is in the book. How should you teach science? You should essentially teach people to read or listen with constructive skepticism. If you are going to teach science, you must give it in a historical context: you must stress how our current knowledge is the accumulation of course corrections. You must stress how it is a work in progress.
  2. Receive science as a set of facts. We are sometimes given advice and told that it comes from “the science”, as if it settled anything. That is often no different that being told that the knowledge comes from “the high priest himself”. It is certainly a power play, but it is not science. When someone tells you that science is saying XYZ, you should always ask “How do people know that XYZ is true?” And as an answer, you cannot just be repeating their arguments: you must think for yourself. If you never come up with unexpected questions, you are not a scientist.
  3. “I defer to the experts” (said with pride). The definining saying of science should be that nobody knows anything. Deferring to the expert is the defining characteristic of pre-scientific epistemology: doubting the expert is the way of science. Observe that there is a difference between listening to the experts (something Feynman advocated) and deferring to the experts. If your doctor tells you to take some pills, do listen! If you don’t understand, do be patient. Don’t throw out the expert advice. But don’t be ruled by it either!

Science may sound irrational when you spell it out as a doctrine of doubt. If you follow the path of science, you are going to be playing with ideas that are either objectively wrong, or socially wrong, at a much higher rate than if you just followed the experts. But, for scientists, genuine scientists, the goal is not to be right as often as possible. There is no contradiction between “being a good scientist” and “being wrong”. The goal is often to find what Peter Thiel might call “secret truths”. Everybody knew, at the beginning of the XXth century that it would take decades or centuries before one could fly in an airplane. You could make such a statement with full confidence, even after the Wright brothers had made their first demonstration. And many people of authority were doing just that. To uncover secret truths, you have to train yourself to ask more questions, to carry more doubts.

Rovelli wrote “Not to fear rethinking the world is the power of science”. Given that science is fundamentally subversive, how could it emerge and survive? I believe that scientific thinking is part of a broader ideology that gives its bearers an evolutionary edge. Simply put, societies that make room for science have an edge. They build and deploy better technology. They adapt more quickly to change.


Published by

Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

26 thoughts on “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts”

  1. I very much understand and agree with the position that you describe.

    I also note that it is necessary to accept a considerable body of “scientific knowledge” as a given since it is not feasible to derive everything from first principles – even there how far back do we need to go. For example, when designing electrical circuits operating at human life compatible temperatures with manually manipulated materials, we can manage with Faraday’s laws and don’t need to account for quantum effects as for semi-conductors (scale) or superconductors (temperature).

    The teaching of science subjects (i.e. physics, chemistry, biology) is constrained by the needs of easily assessed examination papers. It’s far easier to mark a paper for correct/incorrect answers than to evaluate the prose demonstrating an understanding of a certain experiment or even more difficult, and time consuming, if we required the replication of some foundational experiment and a comprehensive description of what was being done, measured, etc.

  2. I also note that it is necessary to accept a considerable body of “scientific knowledge” as a given

    I understand what you mean, but I have to object in the following way. You are well aware, I am sure, that almost every field uses the label science. We say political science, pedagogical science, and so forth. Given that we have agreed to grant every bit of knowledge the adjective “scientific”, it has now lost most of its meaning. Given a body of knowledge, the qualifier “scientific” means little. Maybe this is constitutional, historical, biblical, philosophical knowledge… when you say it is “scientific”, what do you mean? At best, it may mean “knowledge related to the natural sciences”, say… but what do you make of “medical science” and so forth.

    And then, how is studying electromagnetism from a textbook different from studying Kant or algebra?

    since it is not feasible to derive everything from first principles – even there how far back do we need to go.

    In mathematics, you would like to derive everything from first principles. Even with pure mathematics, this proves impossible. Even so, “deriving from first principles” is not a characteristic of science. You can make a constitutional argument, deriving it formally from first principles.

    For example, when designing electrical circuits operating at human life compatible temperatures with manually manipulated materials, we can manage with Faraday’s laws and don’t need to account for quantum effects as for semi-conductors (scale) or superconductors (temperature).

    Right. And to be clear, omitting quantum effects when designing electrical circuits is not being unscientific. On the contrary…

    The teaching of science subjects (i.e. physics, chemistry, biology) is constrained by the needs of easily assessed examination papers. It’s far easier to mark a paper for correct/incorrect answers than to evaluate the prose demonstrating an understanding of a certain experiment or even more difficult, and time consuming, if we required the replication of some foundational experiment and a comprehensive description of what was being done, measured, etc.

    I do not claim that teaching science is easy. What I am stating is that, at the high school level, we teach very little science.

    There is, of course, the need to grade people efficiently, but I fear that it plays a relatively small role. Indeed, we are happy to teach the art of writing essays.

    It is a difficult topic, but I would bet that the starting problem is a lack of understanding of what science is. It is largely viewed by teachers, and by their students, as a body of knowledge… just like any other. You have history and physics. They are bodies of knowledge. Fundamentally the same.

    This does not stop at high school. I have met my share of science and engineering PhD students who do not understand what is science. And worse still: I know people with PhDs in science and engineering who don’t understand science. They view it as an established (though expanding) body of knowledge to be mastered. If you ask them why is sociology not a science like physics, they will probably say something about the study of natural phenomena versus the study of people.

    As for high school teachers… some of them understand, of course… but I would bet that most of them are unfamiliar with Feynman’s argument.

    1. Wow! Infinite thanks. Daniel, I hope you see this vote of confidence, appreciation, and gratitude. Yet, since I think you may be 1 of a handful of real scientists (natural philosophers, et al). I will try to contact you more directly, re: my book “Riemann, Metatheory, and Proof: Riemann’s hypothesis, metamathematics, solutions, and proofs” which confirms your understanding, and RF’s criteria, and critiques the history of ‘science’, maths, metamaths, society, and language

  3. Great article! It could be said that Science is not a body of knowledge but a ‘process’ and the body of knowledge is merely a byproduct of that process or the output of that process.

  4. Simply put, societies that make room for science have an edge. They build and deploy better technology. They adapt more quickly to change.

    How do you know that?

  5. There’s “wrong” and there’s “wrong”. Most scientists are wrong a lot – otherwise lab experiments would be a lot easier to carry out. But I don’t think that’s what you meant by “But these experts are routinely wrong, often in unexpected ways”. The examples you gave were anything but routine.

    To use one of your examples, in 1955 it was not easy to “see with a microscope that there were 23 pairs” of chromosomes. Tjio and Levan had to develop new imaging techniques, and even then their 1956 paper says they counted 47 and 48 chromosomes in some “doubtful cases”. They also write “With previously used technique it has been extremely difficult to make counts in human material. Even with the great progress involved in Hsu’s method exact counts seem difficult, judging from the photo- micrographs published (Hsu, 1952 and elsewhere).”

    It’s not like using a microscope is enough. Painter’s 1925 samples, which lead people to believe there were 48 chromosomes, contained “chromosomes that stuck together or clumped, chromosomes cut into segments by the microtome knife, and other artifacts which made it hard to tell how anyone can get any chromosome count out of these misshapen slides, let alone a clear chromosome count.” (quoting ).

    So while there’s certainly a story there, it isn’t the clear-cut one I think you imply.

    And while Wegener’s views of continental drift were “controversial and widely rejected” (quoting Wikipedia) because of a lack of understandable and acceptable mechanism, poor translations into English, outsiderness, etc., I think the ridicule was more focused on his proposed mechanisms – centrifugal force of the Earth’s rotation and astronomical precession – which were not correct.

    BTW, my favorite description of “expert” is from Werner Heisenberg (though often attributed to Bohr and misquoted): “An expert is someone who knows some of the worst mistakes that can be made in his subject and who manages to avoid them.”, Der Teil und das Ganze (1969) ch. 17, according to .

    1. Continental drift was ridiculed as a fact. It wasn’t merely the individual that was ridiculed. But if you do not like the term “ridiculed”, let us put it aside. The fact is that all experts geologist in 1950 would have told you that there is no such thing as plate tectonics. They would not have said “maybe, we don’t know”. They would have been clear. This is not a small mistake. It is a large one. Geology textbooks in 1950 did present continental drift as a plausible possibility. (Update: it turns out that I was wrong about this.)

      Regarding the number of chromosomes… It may well have been impossible for Painters to determine the number of chromosomes, but that is somewhat irrelevant to the story. If anything, it makes it even more incredible. He stated that the number was 24 pairs. And it was reproduced, without doubt, for decades, and taught as a fact. We still have access to the textbooks. What was taught wasn’t “we are not too sure, it is hard to tell, but we think it is 24”. No. It was 24, period. End of story. Not for 2, 3 years. Not for 10 years. For decades.

      It is one thing to face a difficult problem, conclude that you are not equiped to deal with it and work with conjectures. It is another to reach a conclusion and have it become the consensus, for decades, while being wrong.

      Science is what happens when encourage people to ask question. How do we know that continental drift is impossible… how did you reach that conclusion? What could change your mind? How certain are you? And so forth. The process, this is science.

      What makes these two stories scientific is that you could get people to change their mind. There is a process builtin by which you can build up evidence and get people to revise their position. That is science.

      Critically, it must allow for a young man, without a PhD, without his own lab, to be able to do some experiments, write a paper, be published, without people who think otherwise be able to censor him.

      1. Here’s your two questions asked back to you – How do you know that ‘all experts geologist in 1950 would have told you that there is no such thing as continental drift’ and “how did you reach that conclusion”?

        I looked on for geology textbooks. The first mentioned nothing about continental drift. The second, Principles Of Physical Geology (1944) by geology professor (emeritus) Arthur Holmes (1944) has an entire chapter on the topic, at .

        I invite you to show me where the continental drift hypothesis is treated anything like ridicule. To the contrary, we can see:

        In support of his presentation of the case for continental drift
        Wegener marshalled an imposing collection of facts and opinions. Some
        of his evidence was undeniably cogent, but so much of his advocacy
        was based on speculation and special pleading that it raised a storm
        of adverse criticism. Most geologists, moreover, were reluctant to
        admit the possibility of continental drift, because no recognized
        natural process seemed to have the remotest chance of bringing it
        about. Polar wandering, the “ flight from the poles,” and the
        westerly tidal drift have all been discarded as operative factors.
        Nevertheless, the really important point is not so much to disprove
        Wegener’s particular views as to decide from the relevant evidence
        whether or not continental drift is a genuine variety of earth
        movement. Explanations may safely be left until we know with, greater
        confidence what it is that needs to be explained. Let us, then, turn
        to the evidence with an unbiased mind.

        followed by pages of discussion of the topic, and the difficulty of identifying a mechanism.

        This book was reprinted 14 times until at least 1959, based on .

        The evidence appears to contradict your interpretation because here is an expert geologist in the 1940s writing an apparently widely-used textbook which does not ridicule the idea of continental drift.

        1. A few more counter-examples:

          Introduction to Geology, 3rd ed, William Berryman Scott, (1944), geology professor (emeritus) mentions continental drift in passing, but without ridicule at :

          An alternative explanation of the origin of mountain ranges is derived from the Taylor- Wegener hypothesis of continental drift and is developed by Professor R. A. Daly in his Our Mobile Earth.

          Our Mobile Earth is a 1926 book by Canadian geologist Reginald Aldworth Daly in support of continental drift. See . His mechanism – rebalancing after ejecting the Earth’s moon – was also wrong.

          In Student’s Introduction To Geology (1949) by geologist George McDonald Davies at we read:

          It looks, as Wegener contended, as if America has drifted away from the Old World. Again, the Glossopteris flora of Carboniferous and Permian times links Australia with India, Africa and South America, which seem at that time to have formed one continental mass, the ancient Gondwanaland, but have since drifted apart. The northward drive of Africa in the Alpine orogeny has already been described. The forces that could cause continental drift have not yet been satisfactorily explained, but the theory is certainly preferable to the alternative idea of the foundering* of continents.

          Again, hardly ridicule as fact.

          For a Soviet look, Fundamentals Of Geology (1940) by Academician V. Obruchev writes at :

          At first winning over many scientists Wegener’s hypothesis now arouses serious objections because the distribution of the various mountain ranges on the earth’s surface does not agree with it and even contradicts it. Europe and Africa which must also press westward in connection with the eastward rotation of the Earth have no mountain ranges along the western shores, whereas in Asia the mountain ranges are located along the eastern coast which, according to this hypothesis, is not subject to pressure by the layer “sima.”

          Today geologists regard the hypothesis of continental drift as unable to explain the changes on the face of the Earth.

          While the summary critical, the observation that it was “winning over many scientists” before problems with the original hypothesis were identified, and the tone does not sound like ridicule, but rather a conclusion based on the observation that the proposed mechanism contradicts evidence.

          This agrees with my hypothesis that the continental drift theory which reached mainstream in the 1960s was not Wegener’s. Wegener’s theory had the wrong mechanism. What ridicule there was concerned the proposed mechanisms, and a non-trivial number of professional geologists considered the general idea as preferable over the other hypotheses of the time.

            1. Note however that it is still undeniable that the theory was ridiculed. Quoting from Wikipedia:

              David Attenborough, who attended university in the second half of the 1940s, recounted an incident illustrating its lack of acceptance then: “I once asked one of my lecturers why he was not talking to us about continental drift and I was told, sneeringly, that if I could prove there was a force that could move continents, then he might think about it. The idea was moonshine, I was informed.”

              1. Certainly. There was a spirited and even contentious argument over the issue, including strong advocates against continental drift because of the lack of any evidence that there were forces strong enough to move continents.

                But, to go back to your original statement, “these experts are routinely wrong, often in unexpected ways” – aren’t your expectations on the rightness of drift theory based on the hindsight of knowing the answer, after much more data was available?

                Shouldn’t we think it’s expected to have disagreements like this given the lack of information they had? It’s not like they were all saying, eg, land bridges between the continents was the unequivocal explanation, but rather there were different hypotheses, with different camps – an altogether expected pattern.

                We can point to books ca. 1900 by astronomers which state that there are canals on Mars, like . It’s easy to look at detailed images from space probes to Mars to see those canals do not exist, so the idea that multiple professional astronomers claim they saw canals could be unexpected to modern eyes.

                But those images didn’t exist in 1900, and even the experiments which suggested they could be optical illusions hadn’t yet been conducted.

                I think the Martian canals are analogous to the 48/46 chromosome problem. It was hard to count the number of chromosomes, and not a simple matter of looking in a microscope until we developed techniques to make it easy. When the data is borderline detectable, it’s altogether too easy to read into the data what your preconceptions are – and I think that tendency is not all that unexpected.

                That sort of bias is similar to the Feynman’s description of confirmation bias in measuring the electron charge –'s_experiment_as_an_example_of_psychological_effects_in_scientific_methodology . I learned about the oil drop experiment issue in college. Here’s a biologist on the 48/46 chromosome issue, at :

                I’ve used it as an example for years to tell students to clear their heads of preconceptions when making observations, trust what you see, and report your measurements as accurately as you can, because this tendency favoring confirmation bias can corrupt science surprisingly easily.

                As another example of my previous question, how do you know that “Everybody knew, at the beginning of the XXth century that it would take centuries before one could fly in an airplane.”?

                My understanding is that Chanute believed it would take much less time than that; he had flowed unpowered gliders already in the 1890s. Double checking now, Percy Pilcher was planning to make a powered flight before his death in 1899. Certainly many did not think manned powered flight would happen soon, but you argue “everyone” – which includes the aviation experts who were working on the problem in the 1890s. The major problem (as I understand it) was having a good enough power source for the engine, and I don’t think experts thought it would take even multiple decades for that, given the huge technological advancements taking place in the late 1800s.

                1. Of course, I do not mean “everybody” literally, but rather I refer to the common view as expressed by the New York Times…

                  Hence, if it requires, say, a thousand years to fit for easy flight a bird which started with rudimentary wings, or ten thousand for one with started with no wings at all and had to sprout them ab initio, it might be assumed that the flying machine which will really fly might be evolved by the combined and continuous efforts of mathematicians and mechanicians in from one million to ten million years — provided, of course, we can meanwhile eliminate such little drawbacks and embarrassments as the existing relation between weight and strength in inorganic materials.

                  There are many other such quotes, easy to find… “Flight by machines heavier than air is unpractical and insignificant, if not utterly impossible.” — Simon Newcomb. Lord Kelvin was famously dismissive. You could not have much more authority than Kelvin.

                  The point is that, at the time when the Wright Brothers were about to demonstrate that heavier-than-light flight was possible and practical (and even several years after that), many of the authorities, the people you could look up at (military leaders, journalists, politicians, scientists), were telling folks that this was a foolish idea.

                  There was clearly a community of “believers” worldwide, to which the Wright Brothers belonged. They corresponded with a few such experts. These people knew, of course.

                  I submit to you that had you written an article for the New York times in 1900 about the imminent invention of the aeroplane, the New York Times would have flagged you as fake news. Well, not in these words…

                  1. My question was more epistemological in nature. I asked how you knew that “Everybody knew, at the beginning of the XXth century that it would take centuries before one could fly in an airplane.”

                    You qualified that everyone means “the people you could look up at (military leaders, journalists, politicians, scientists)”.

                    I’ll accept that. But then we also find military leaders, journalists, politicians, and scientists at the time who thought it would be possible, and in less than a century.

                    You quote Newcomb as being dismissive, so I looked into that in detail. His 1901 piece “Is the Airship Coming“, which specifically points to limitations in technology of the time, including the seeming inability of steam engines to provide enough power. Which is true, and the problem I highlighted earlier in finding a good enough engine.

                    But on the same Wikipedia page you linked to you’ll see that in 1903 he wrote “Quite likely the 20th century is destined to see the natural forces which will enable us to fly from continent to continent with a speed far exceeding that of a bird.” He was somewhat pessimistic, surely, as that took only 17 years, but hardly the words of someone who thinks “it would take centuries before one could fly in an airplane”, yes?

                    Furthermore, in his 1901 piece he writes:

                    “The lesson which we draw from this general review of progress is that we cannot conclude that because the genius of the nineteenth century has opened up such wonders as it has, therefore the twentieth is to give us the airship. … Perhaps the main point I have tried to enforce in this paper is this-the very common and optimistic reply to objections, “We have seen many wonders, therefore nothing is impossible,” is not a sound inference from experience when applied to a wonder long sought and never found.

                    It sounds very much like the general population – or at least the readers of McClure’s Magazine – expected that powered human flight would come in the next century, and he was cautioning against that technooptimism.

                    So I ask again, how did you draw the conclusion that most people in 1900 thought it would be well over a century until powered human flight was possible? (And by “most people” I mean people who had the basis for an opinion on the topic; call it ‘educated Westerners’ if you want more clarification.)

                    1. It is difficult, even today, to determine exactly what people think about a given issue, and it is likely an ill-posed problem. How do we know what people think about Mars colonization today? How will you able to prove what people thought, a century from now? Yet we can still make a few simple statements with confidence. Elon Musk’s claim that he (or people with his help) will land on Mars in 2025 is not one that is generally supported by experts. You will find plenty of people supporting it. Elon Musk has a vast fan club. But what does the New York Times says? Can we find any research article supporting a visit to Mars in 2025? Does any major science magazine supports categorically Elon’s claims. The authoritative view is that Elon is full of shit.

                      Of course, the minute he succeeds (should he succeed), it immediately becomes harder to establish the contrast between what people thought and what happened. People who used their authority to assert something, do not tend to come clean later and admit their mistakes. It will seem, soon enough, as if everyone knew that Mars was around the corner.

                      It does not mean that Elon is without support. I would not be surprised if many influential people were either openly or secretly supporting him.

                      Krugman openly dismissed the economic importance of the Internet. To my knowledge, he never came back to this point to say “I was wrong”. We know that initially, “all” the business experts dismissed of the web and of its importance. Krugman included. We know this because we have reports of Kevin Kelly literally trying to donate domain names to large corporations and not even getting through the door.

                      There is an hypothetical effect where, if you only have orthodox points of view, even if you do not think of yourself as orthodox, you will suffer from “orthodox privilege”. Whatever you think and say always syncs beautifully with the established view. So there is never any contradiction. Maybe in March, you live in the USA and you believe that it is ridiculous to wear masks, just like the experts say. Then in July, you think everyone should wear masks, like the experts say. At no point in time have you ever perceived that the experts were wrong. You and the experts were always right, all along.

      2. Thanks again Daniel. Not an officially young man now but, so far, virtually censored & my work virtually suppressed by default, ala the dynamic conservatism, ‘academic’ bias, professional xenophobia, and conceits of the SM maths industry. Sam Clemens (AKA Mark Twain) wrote a great essay on the syndrome, long before Bohr & Kuhn blew the whistle. So, now the new Mandarins & new Old Guard of SM scientism are in charge of maintaining their status quo, tenure, funding, etc. So, not too hopeful about my work initiating the new era of maths, etc., in my lifetime. BTW, I’m approaching 73 YO, & have no idea whether I will live to be 128 YO or even 108.

  6. As for the masks, to say

    Maybe in March, you live in the USA and you believe that it is ridiculous to wear masks, just like the experts say.

    throws out all the reasoning provided by those experts. There was specific reasoning behind this thought, namely that masks may have been in short supply for healthcare workers, if everyone stockpiled them like they did toilet paper. Secondly, there isn’t very strong evidence that wearing masks is effective, but since there is very little downside to wearing a mask the old adage of “it’s better than nothing” applies.

    1. Secondly, there isn’t very strong evidence that wearing masks is effective, but since there is very little downside to wearing a mask the old adage of “it’s better than nothing” applies.

      That is my view of the science as well.

      I ordered masks in February, from China, and got them a week or so later. They were quite inexpensive as well. Soon after, local entrepreneurs were selling masks, and it was quite easy to get them all through March. In fact, many companies have built up a generous surplus. (Hint: it is not hard to make face covers.)

      (…) throws out all the reasoning provided by those experts. There was specific reasoning behind this thought, namely that masks may have been in short supply for healthcare workers, if everyone stockpiled them like they did toilet paper.

      There may have been ulterior motives, by here is, literally, what Canada’s top doctor said in an official capacity back in late March: “Putting a mask on an asymptomatic person is not beneficial, obviously, if you’re not infected (…) What we worry about is actually the potential negative aspects of wearing masks where people are not protecting their eyes, or you know, other aspects of where a virus could enter your body,a nd that gives you a false sense of confidence, but also, it increases the touching of your face. If you think about it, if you’ve got a mask around your face, sometimes you can’t help it, because you’re just touching parts of your face.”. Source In Quebec, Arruda (with the equivalent position) even made an entire video (now retracted) explaining why using masks was likely to make things worse.

      They may have been thinking “let us use our positions as experts to lie to the public so that we can manipulate them”. Maybe that’s what happened. It is entirely possible. It does not matter. They proclaimed for weeks that masks were useless or even potentially dangerous. This was the expert position. This just adds yet one more reason to doubt the experts: they may have ulterior motives.

      Here is Urback on the issue

      When pressed by journalists Monday, Dr. Tam attributed her reversal to a review of evolving evidence. Yet it is unclear to which precise evidence she refers, and why that evidence was more compelling than the collection of previous published research. There may have been some concern from public health authorities that recommending masks for general use would have sent people snapping up medical masks, depleting supply. Dr. Tam also alluded to the idea that masks can confer a sense of invincibility; that mask-wearers might feel “protected” enough to ease up physical distancing guidelines. But both issues can be neutered with clear, unequivocal public health instructions: Here’s how you wear your mask. Here’s how you take it off. Here’s what you don’t do while wearing a mask. And please, homemade masks only.

      Oh! Urback points to a nice one: a common argument for the change of position is that “new evidence” or “new science” came in. But nobody has been able to point at this new science. As far as I can tell, we did not learn a lot more about masks, and there was certainly no sudden influx of knowledge.

    1. I am impressed that someone would refer to this post of mine daily.

      The lesson is the same irrespective of the issue. You ought to doubt the experts if you have a scientific frame of mind. There is no other way. People wrongfully equate “doubt” with “anti-science”. But the opposite is true.

      Vaccines are usually about a tradeoff. You accept a small risk today to save yourself from a big risk tomorrow. It is usually worth it to pay a small price to avoid a huge problem later. So, for example, you ought to buy home insurance because even though it is expensive and fires are unlikely, once your house goes up in smoke, you suffer dearly.

      So if you can avoid a serious disease with an at least moderately safe vaccine, then it is probably a good deal. However, it does not follow that all vaccines are good.

      Similarly, not all insurance is good. I do not get insurance when I get batteries at the store. That’s because the risk is too small to warrant taking the insurance. We do not give everyone all possible vaccines. In the UK, they deliberately do not vaccinate children against small pox. There has been serious problems with vaccinations campaigns in the past, see this CNN article It is definitively the case that some vaccines are less safe than others. You then must look at the risk that they are preventing and assess the risk.

      So anyone who criticize someone for not taking every possible vaccines all of the time, should reassess their view. There is a tradeoff involved and it requires consideration.

      I, myself, got two vaccines recently. One for COVID, which seems like a good deal given my age, and another minor vaccine with a very well known efficacy. I am not getting other vaccines for the time being. I also consulted my doctor in the process.

      I did research both vaccines that I got. My doctor did. Before getting one of the vaccines, the nurse did research of her own as well.

      I do not accept any medical intervention without first doing my own research, and coming up with questions as needed.

      It is doubt, doubt always. Doubt yourself and then doubt the experts.

  7. Dan,

    Great post, although I have to admit you started with great material.

    I happen to “teach physics” but I like to tell my students that I am more like a judo instructor, or a piano instructor, than someone who “teaches a subject.” One can read a book about piano playing or judo, but face off with a piano or worthy opponent and one quickly understands the difference between knowing about something and being able to do it. What I think a science (at least physics) teacher should do is not teach a student science, instead we should teach them how to be a scientist, i.e. how to DO science. It is much more a set of intellectual skills than a body of facts. In other words, no one knows science, but some people happen to do it.

    Another quote from Feynman captures the issue of right and wrong in science quite well. Often abbreviated to “Nature is never wrong” he actually said “Nature cannot be fooled.” We might argue here about who is right or wrong about whether someone did or did not do or say or believe something in years past, but if we do an experiment and an outcome happens we do not agree with, it is very likely we are wrong and not Nature.

  8. Daniel thanks for this. I’ve been trying to figure out how people get to believe things – all things without experiencing them first hand. Beliefs that in some instances will result in them killing other people, literally for not holding the same views. My own doubts started very early in life, when, as Catholics we were forbidden to eat meat on Fridays. I asked my Mum if there was a supreme ruler of the universe why on Earth would stopping humans eating meat on Fridays on his “to do” list. Carl Sagan (not a big fan of his because (a) he took credit for claiming the hot temperature on Venus was caused by the CO2 atmosphere (Rupert Windt had suggested it 10 year earlier, and (b) he took it upon himself to ridicule Velikowsky,* who 10 years earlier had forecast Venus would be hot because it was a new planet. But he is quoted as saying, and I paraphrase, “people think that science is a set of facts, when in reality it is process.”

    *If you haven’t read Velikovsky’s “World in Collision” you should do so. Almost entire scientific establishment came out against his theory of Venus and it’s wonderings around the Solar System, they tried to get the book banned (in 1950, it’s still in print to day and is reputed to have sold more than 1000,000 copies). Among his many predictions he forecast the Venus would be hot, would have very little water in its atmosphere, that the atmosphere would contain very little water and ver little oxygen – all of which turned out to true. It was the wondering around the Solar System that caused the controversy, but it is true that drawings of the night sky didn’t show Venus as part of it until around 3500 years ago.
    Thanks again you’ve given much room for thought.

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