Fooling Ourselves

 

 

by John Tyler Connoley

 

May 25, 2005

 

 

On May 20, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp honoring the life and work of Richard P. Feynman. Feynman was one of the great thinkers of the twentieth century, a Nobel Laureate in Physics, yet little-known outside his field of work. He was one of those great inventions of modernism (most of whom have died off in the postmodern twenty-first century) -- a true genius who believed the world was ultimately knowable, but who was also keenly aware of how little he knew. He once said, "I was born not knowing and have only had a little time to change that here and there."

 

I "met" Dick Feynman through his memoirs -- funny, self-deprecating collections of stories and essays that bubble over with Feynman's childlike love of learning. I'm a collector of memoirs, preferring writers who lived interesting lives but who were not too full of themselves. I'm attracted to humorous geniuses:  Will Rogers, Quentin Crisp, and, of course, Richard P. Feynman.

 

The work that earned Feynman the Nobel Prize began as he "fooled around" with spinning plates. He'd noticed that the wobble of a plate appeared to be different from the wobble of the design printed on it, and he wondered why that was. When he started studying wobbles, he wasn't sure he would discover anything worthwhile, but he was determined to enjoy himself and wrestle playfully with whatever caught his fancy. His playing led to a new theory of nuclear physics. Later, he said, "The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate."

 

Feynman was a true product of the Enlightenment: a man of science who believed the world had an order that could be ascertained through experiment and observation, and a man who hated superstition and supernaturalism. He was also a product of the Enlightenment in his faith in doubt. In his lecture "The Value of Science," he talked about what he called The Remarkable Idea of scientific thought -- the idea that all knowledge is tentative. "When a scientist doesn't know the answer to a problem, he is ignorant. When he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And when he is pretty darn sure of what the result is going to be, he is in some doubt. We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress we must recognize the ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty -- some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain."

 

Today, we seem to have lost some of our knowledge of ignorance. The rugged individualism of postmodernism has led, not to relativism, but to individuals who all think they're right. We fight viciously over ideas that are far from certain: the definition of life, the mysteries of global warming, the future voting record of judges, the worth (or worthlessness) of same-sex marriage. Each side in the political divide threatens to go nuclear, and grits its teeth at the possibility of compromise, much less at the possibility that they might be wrong. As we face the long expanse of the twenty-first century, the greatest threat to our way of life -- indeed to our very existence -- comes from those who are certain they have the whole truth and who are willing to kill and be killed to defend their ideas.

 

Feynman died in 1985, and I didn't meet him until 1995. However, in this age of moral clarity, nuclear options, and ends-justify-the-means warfare, I sorely miss Dick with his sense of wonder and doubt, and his constant willingness to admit he was wrong (and to point out where others were fooling themselves). In many ways he was a court jester, often using humor to highlight the ways we took ourselves too seriously and trusted our preconceptions too much.

 

One of the most famous Feynman moments happened shortly after the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. As a member of the Presidential commission investigating the event, Feynman sat through hours of testimony and flim-flam speeches by top government officials. Everyone had a hunch the o-rings had failed because of the low temperatures on the day of the launch, but they were all fooling themselves into believing the o-rings were safe. During one of the hearings, Feynman asked for a glass of ice water, took an o-ring from the Shuttle model in the hearing room, and immersed it in the water. As yet another NASA official stated the hard-and-fast party line, Feynman pulled his o-ring out of the glass and said, "I took this stuff I got out of your seal and I put it in ice water, and I discovered that when you put some pressure on it for a while and then undo it, it doesn't stretch back." And in typical Feynman manner he added, "I believe that has some significance for our problem."

 

Feynman was fond of saying the first principle of science "is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool. So, you have to be very careful about that." He lived as if this were also the first principle of life. These days, I wish more of us followed his humble lead.

 

 

 

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Copyright 2005 by John Tyler Connoley

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