Don't Respect Your Elders

By Chris Mooney | October 6, 2009 3:37 pm

I just came across a great quotation from Richard Feynman; as he put it:

Science alone of all the subjects contains within itself the lesson of the danger of belief in the infallibility of the greatest teachers of the preceding generation…. As a matter of fact I can also define science another way: Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.


Comments (10)

  1. Clark

    I always like to think I am strong because I am young and naive.

  2. Jon

    And I always like to think I’m wise because I have a science Phd.

  3. Erasmussimo

    Well, the global warming deniers can take heart in this; they claim that we should not accept the recommendations of the great majority of scientists who believe that AGW presents us with a serious challenge. After all, why should we accept the word of experts?

    I think that in this case, Feynman was wrong, or perhaps the context qualifies his assertion.

  4. Julie

    This can so easily be twisted by people who don’t understand what Feynman was talking about. He believes in the rational challenge of authority, that data trumps reputation. But so many science-doubters would read this as free reign to doubt experts even if the data proves the experts right.

  5. Jon

    This goes back to your point about Hofstadter’s *Anti-Intellectualism in American Life*, that skepticism about authority can be both a blessing and a curse.

    Somehow, we have to get people informed about what kind of skepticism is healthy, and what lack of trust in human institutions amounts to paranoia. What the right and its institutions have done, in many cases, is *cultivated* paranoia (as in Hofstadter’s famous essay on the *Paranoid Style in Politics…*)

    … Again, Sam Tanenhaus Sam Tanenhaus Sam Tanenhaus (for instance about 7:30 into this recent interview…)

  6. Michael D.

    Julie is right. And I’ll take it a step further in reminding everyone that true scientific research always involves placing your ideas into the arena for everyone to scrutinize. At some point scientists must put their ideas, approaches, data, and interpretations up for official review, and–in essence–never ending scrutiny by their fellow scientists. So, every scientist, no matter how great, faces the possibility of someone finding a better approach, better data, etc., due to the inevitable enlightenment of future generations of scientists. There’s no way we, as scientists, CANNOT be ignorant of that future enlightenment.

  7. Erik

    Julie is right, just read her response.

  8. Aaron

    This quote can be so easily taken out of context to promote anti science agendas. But it really is true, science functions based on the ability of new scientists to question the results of old scientists. We advance by proving our elders wrong, but that doesn’t mean that their results were useless, or even entirely incorrect. The old results will serve as contributing factors toward the development of new theories.

    If we just accepted the findings of our elders as infalliable we would be at a stalemate.

  9. Robert

    Actually, it doesn’t mean that our elders are wrong, so much as incomplete. (Of course, elders can be wrong, but I would argue Newton wasn’t wrong about gravity, he just didn’t have the wherewithal to make a complete theory. Heck, even general relativity is not complete if we consider the quantum limit.) One could argue that no theory of the physical world is every totally correct or complete in that they are all models of reality, usually espoused in mathematical or chemical language.

    All that being said, Julie hit it on the nose in the most elegant sentence: “He believes in the rational challenge of authority, that data trumps reputation.”

  10. Bill

    Also agree with Julie…well put.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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