Feynman and Stephen Schneider

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One of the men that I admire is the late, great Dr. Richard Feynman. He was a great physicist who won a Nobel Prize for his work in quantum electrodynamics and invented the Feynman diagram, which helps to visualize and calculate the interactions between sub atomic particles. Feynman was also quite a character in his personal life and relished being unconventional both in his scientific work and in his day to day life.  He was eager to promote science and loved teaching at Caltech. One of his most famous speeches was the commencement address he gave at Caltech in 1974. In this speech he discussed the meaning of science and the difference between real science and what he called. “cargo cult” science. You can find the whole speech here, and also in the last chapter of his book Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman. Here are some excerpts I want to bring up.

I think the educational and psychological studies I mentioned are
examples of what I would like to call cargo cult science. In the
South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw
airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same
thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to imitate things like
runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a
wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head
like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas–he’s
the controller–and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re
doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the
way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So
I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the
apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but
they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.

Now it behooves me, of course, to tell you what they’re missing.
But it would be just about as difficult to explain to the South Sea
Islanders how they have to arrange things so that they get some
wealth in their system. It is not something simple like telling
them how to improve the shapes of the earphones. But there is one
feature I notice that is generally missing in cargo cult science.
That is the idea that we all hope you have learned in studying
science in school–we never explicitly say what this is, but just
hope that you catch on by all the examples of scientific
investigation. It is interesting, therefore, to bring it out now
and speak of it explicitly. It’s a kind of scientific integrity,
a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of
utter honesty–a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if
you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you
think might make it invalid–not only what you think is right about
it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and
things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other
experiment, and how they worked–to make sure the other fellow can
tell they have been eliminated.

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be
given, if you know them. You must do the best you can–if you know
anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong–to explain it. If you
make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then
you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well
as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem.
When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate
theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that
those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea
for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else
come out right, in addition.

In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to
help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the
information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself–and you are
the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about
that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other
scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after

I would like to add something that’s not essential to the science,
but something I kind of believe, which is that you should not fool
the layman when you’re talking as a scientist. I am not trying to
tell you what to do about cheating on your wife, or fooling your
girlfriend, or something like that, when you’re not trying to be
a scientist, but just trying to be an ordinary human being. We’ll
leave those problems up to you and your rabbi. I’m talking about
a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending
over backwards to show how you are maybe wrong, that you ought to
have when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as
scientists, certainly to other scientists, and I think to laymen.

Now, I want to contrast these sentiments with the ones expressed by Dr. Stephen Schneider. Dr Schneider is most famous for certain remarks he made concerning the problem of global warming.

On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but – which means that we must include all doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climate change. To do that we need to get some broad based support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, means getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This “double ethical bind” we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both.

Dr. Schneider claims that this is a misquote from Discover Magazine, and it would be only fair to take him at his word. He discusses this quote and the difficulty of balancing science and activism here. Read the whole thing.

I think that Dr. Schneider was not, in fact, misquoted. That is to say that the words may not have been quoted entirely accurately, nevertheless, the words above do reflect his attitude regarding the necessity of scientific accuracy. Consider his complaint to Jonathon Schell.

I expressed my frustration to Jonathan Schell, a Pulitzer-prize-winning writer doing a story on the contentious climate debate for Discover magazine. I guess my first mistake was to be a bit tongue-in-cheek — I painted a stark picture of the opposing viewpoints in the climate change debate: gloom-and-doom stories from deep ecology groups and others versus pontifications on uncertainties from big industry and others, who used that to argue against preemptive action. I complained that even though I always make a point in my interviews to discuss the wide range of possibilities, from catastrophic to beneficial, media stories rarely convey the entire range. All too often, a scientist’s viewpoint is boxed into one extreme or the other. Usually, but not always, I am put in the “it is a big problem” box rather than the “it is too uncertain to do anything” box, even though I acknowledge both perspectives have some plausible arguments. (See the opening paragraph in my review of Lomborg for Scientific American).

I tried to explain to Schell how to be both effective and honest: by using metaphors that simultaneously convey both urgency and uncertainty, and also by producing supporting documents of all types and lengths (see the “scientist popularizer”). Unfortunately, this clarification is absent from the Discover article, and this omission opened the door for fifteen years of subsequent distortions and attacks. Ironically, this is the consummate example of my grievance about problems arising from short reports of long interviews.

Read what Dr. Feynman says above one more time. There isn’t any conflict between being honest and effective. The scientist, speaking as a scientist, must always err on the side of honesty. He must be willing to say “I don’t know” or “the data is uncertain” even if he believes that the fate of the Earth is in question. This is a matter of scientific credibility. If a scientist fudges, makes up data or scenarios, then he damages the credibility of every scientist in the world.

There is more. Karl Popper was a philosopher of science who introduced the idea of falsification in science. That is to say, a scientific hypothesis is only valid to the extent that it can be falsified, that is, proven wrong. If a hypothesis can not be falsified either by experiment or observation, then it is not really scientific. Now, a problem is that climate change hypotheses can be difficult to falsify. You have to do a lot of painstaking observations of past temperature changes using methods that are not always very reliable. There is a lot of guesswork involved. When you consider how complex the interactions in the Earth’s atmosphere are, any calculations concerning long term climate changes can at best be expressed as probabilities. It may seem obvious that increasing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere will increase the greenhouse effect and lead to global warming, the matter is far more complicated. They are many circumstances that may mitigate or even aggrevate the effect. With that in mind consider this.

The dominant paradigm in science is to administer replicable experiments that test, or “falsify”, existing hypotheses. If the test fails, the hypothesis is rejected. Sociologists of science have long pointed out the deep flaws in the exclusive use of falsification as a test of “truth.” Objective science based on collecting frequency information from observations, is indeed a good and necessary part of transforming speculative ideas into better hypotheses, but it is applicable only under very limited conditions. For starters, only past or present systems are observable. Falsification based on observation requires that an infinite set of replicable experiments be performed — an unobtainable abstraction in many important applications, like climate change. Futhermore, obtaining frequency data on future events is impossible before the fact. Some die-hard frequentists deliberately avoid problems built on the subjectivity of climate change projections based on the non-falsifiablility of future events. I was told in 1985 by a senior member of the atmospheric science community at a National Research Council assessment on “nuclear winter” that I was “irresponsible” for working on post-war climate change at all since it couldn’t be “falsified.” Before I could shut my dropped jaw to rebut, a social geographer delivered an eloquent oration, saying that it is a scientist who lets a professional paradigm impede him or her from helping society anticipate problems who is irresponsible, not the scientist trying to peer into the shadowy future with the best available knowledge. He also correctly noted that while such projections use subjective rather than objective science, they are still very important expert judgments.

In the case of climate change, where replicable experimentation is difficult, if not impossible, computer simulation models of past and future climate changes are essential. Empirical data plays a major role, not as a simple basis for predicting the future, but rather in building the tools we use to make projections. Observations of the historical climate record are essential for deriving and testing simulation models in order to select those that best encapsulates our understanding of how the climate works. These models are then used to forecast future climate changes based on various scenarios of possible human activities. The validity of a model depends on how it deals with structural change — evolving functional relationships or parameters. Predictions based on past observations are valid only as long as future conditions replicate past conditions. This is unlikely to be the case for large climate changes, which are expected to arise from unprecedented rapid changes in the composition of atmospheric greenhouse gases, land surface changes, etc.  When contrarian skeptics assert that an “objective” analysis of the “facts” indicate the climate will change negligibly (e.g., see a Lomborg quote), they often ignore the effects of structural changes that limit the ability to extrapolate statistics from past observations.

When uncertainty is great, as in the case of climate change, the use of subjective probability assessments is particularly necessary — and controversial. Richard Moss and I prepared a guidance paper on uncertainties to be used in association with the IPCC TAR (see “Uncertainties Guidance”) in which we advocate that the authors of the TAR assign confidence levels to each of their statements, and that authors distinguish explicitly the extent to which that confidence comes from direct observations or from expert judgments. Thereafter, Richard and I were nicknamed “the uncertainty cops” (see a Nature story), but in spite of the goofy nickname, we were indeed able to reduce authors’ fears of using subjective probability assessments. (See Pittock and Jones: “Probabilities will help us plan for climate change”; see also Grubler and Nakicenovic). Unfortunately, many politicians and political bodies favor the objective approach (though it is impossible in principle in the case of future climate change), and they, too, prefer to avoid the speculative use of ‘subjective’ estimations derived from imperfect models. I can only reiterate that making predictions about an uncertain and complex future necessarily implies the use of models and subjective assessment.

He seems to admit the difficulties. And yet, he seems to be saying that the usual procedure is not good enough. Note, he laments the fact that politicians and political bodies favor the objective approach, that is to say, want actual proof that there is a threat before committing resources to fighting it.

It is also important, as noted, to acknowledge all sides of an issue, and especially to refute any contrarian opinions that are fictional or based on shaky assumptions or evidence. This is especially difficult in countries like the United States, where the current Bush Administration has decided against signing the Kyoto Protocol, supporting voluntary rather than mandatory emissions reduction measures that Raymond Bradley, director of the Climate System Research Center at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, has called “ludicrous” (see an Associated Press article by Scott Sonner), weakened environmental laws, censored environmental research, denied scientifically-based climate change claims, and even gone so far as to “soften” its climate change vocabulary to make the issue appear less salient, as mentioned in a New York Times article and also at Luntzspeak.com. Also see Contrarian Science in the Climate Science section. Because of this situation, some scientists are attempting to show that the Bush Administration has misused climate science in its formulation of environmental policy, as evidenced by web sites like scienceinpolicy.org, which was created by a group of graduate students, post-docs, faculty members, and other scientists to separate what they see as fact from fiction in the U.S. climate policy debate.

I am not sure I am following Dr Schneider here. First he admits the certainty of climate science, laments that people in charge of resources want some degree of certainty, then, states that contrarian opinions are based on fictional assumptions. He complains that scientifitcally-based climate change claims have been weakened, but what scientifically based claims? He said before how difficult it is to make any claims. He accuses the Bush administration of misusing climate science, but what of his peers, who feel it is necessary to make matters more certain that they actually are.

I may be more than a little unfair picking on Stephan Schneider. Reading through this piece, shows he does have a good grasp of the uncertainties of the subject and he does sincerely want to educate the public without condescension, and yet, I can’t help but think that he lacks the rigorous integrity that Feynman spoke of in his Caltech address. He seems too willing to set aside doubts to promote action, or to be an activist rather than an observer. I can’t help but wonder if that is the case with the researchers involved in climategate. And, by not being careful, they are doing their cause, and science, a great disservice.

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