Why it's rational to believe what scientists say March 31, 2009 11:05 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for a comment on Mefi or AskMe where someone gave an extended quote from a scientist/commentator (maybe Richard Feynman), explaining why it's rational for a layperson to believe what scientists say, even if you haven't figured out the mechanics of how they arrived at their conclusions. The gist was that it's sufficient just to know that the scientists are generally skilled at figuring things out. (That's probably oversimplifying, which is why I want to find the actual passage.)

I forget if this was in AskMe or the blue. It was a long paragraph, probably taking up about 10 or 12 lines. It may have been all italicized, and it probably had some favorites. I believe the comment was in the middle of a long thread.

I've been Googling around but haven't found it. (A search for feynman science site:metafilter.com turns up 387 results.)
posted by Jaltcoh to MetaFilter-Related at 11:05 AM (39 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

Scientists WANT you to believe it's rational to believe them without understanding. That's how they plan on getting into your pants.

DON'T LET THE SCIENTISTS INTO YOUR PANTS!!!
posted by Grither at 11:18 AM on March 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


As a scientist, I can say with certainty that Grither is wrong. It is rational for you to let us into your pants. Totally in the name of science, of course.
posted by procrastination at 11:29 AM on March 31, 2009 [7 favorites]


If any lady scientists want into my pants, they should feel free. Science is hot.
posted by Caduceus at 11:29 AM on March 31, 2009 [2 favorites]


That doesn't sound like anything Feynman would have said.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:30 AM on March 31, 2009


Surely you're joking, Mr. Chocolate Pickle!
posted by Greg Nog at 11:32 AM on March 31, 2009 [2 favorites]


You're not confusing a scientist with the Pope here? You're sure?
posted by GuyZero at 11:36 AM on March 31, 2009


It wasn't the Pope. I thought it was a reasonable point.

The quote wasn't saying scientists are infallible. I already gave the disclaimer that I'm sure I'm oversimplifying in how I remember it, which is the very reason I'm interested in reading the actual quote.
posted by Jaltcoh at 11:39 AM on March 31, 2009


I always wondered why they refer to non-scientists as "laypersons." Huh.
posted by The World Famous at 11:42 AM on March 31, 2009 [2 favorites]


The World Famous: "I always wondered why they refer to non-scientists as "laypersons." Huh."

Because us "laypersons" are too busy getting laid. Ohhh feel the burn scientists!
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 11:48 AM on March 31, 2009 [3 favorites]


If you feel like sifting through google results,
"site:metafilter.com layperson scientists reason" (190)
"site:metafilter.com layperson scientists rational" (51)

(Leaving out Feynman because there's some doubt as to whether it's him or not and leaving out belief/believe because that just nets you a bunch of creationism vs. evolution junk)
posted by juv3nal at 11:49 AM on March 31, 2009


Here maybe?
posted by zennie at 11:52 AM on March 31, 2009


KevinSkomsvold: "The World Famous: "I always wondered why they refer to non-scientists as "laypersons." Huh."

Because us "laypersons" are too busy getting laid. Ohhh feel the burn scientists!
"

Dammit!
posted by Science! at 11:53 AM on March 31, 2009 [4 favorites]


My Google thing turned up this. Maybe it'll point you in the direction of who actually said it. Now I'm curious.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 11:56 AM on March 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


Here maybe?
posted by zennie at 1:52 PM on March 31 [+] [!]


Yes, that's it! Thanks, zennie!
posted by Jaltcoh at 11:56 AM on March 31, 2009


My Google thing turned up this. Maybe it'll point you in the direction of who actually said it. Now I'm curious.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 1:56 PM on March 31


That's definitely on-point too. I just read the page you linked to, but I'm interested in reading more. Thanks.
posted by Jaltcoh at 11:59 AM on March 31, 2009


Hurrah! You're welcome, Jaltcoh.
posted by zennie at 12:02 PM on March 31, 2009


Jaltcoh, which response to that AskMe were you looking for?
posted by grobstein at 12:03 PM on March 31, 2009


π is exactly three!
posted by Mister_A at 12:16 PM on March 31, 2009


Jaltcoh, which response to that AskMe were you looking for?

Had to be otio's Max Weber quote. Thank you for posting this Jaltcoh. That was great to read and think about. Good ol Weber.
posted by cashman at 12:18 PM on March 31, 2009


Jaltcoh, which response to that AskMe were you looking for?

Had to be otio's Max Weber quote. Thank you for posting this Jaltcoh.


You're welcome! Yes, it is the Weber quote -- I should have specified (the second comment in the thread).
posted by Jaltcoh at 12:28 PM on March 31, 2009


I love the irony that people are often willing to accept scientist's arguments on authority when science exists so that they don't have to.

I understand that even highly trained scientists don't necessarily have the background to investigate claims from outside their disciplines, but it still makes me laugh when people QUOTE SCIENCE as if it was gospel.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 12:37 PM on March 31, 2009


Science and scientists are both welcome in my pants.

Just not at the same time.
posted by loquacious at 12:51 PM on March 31, 2009 [1 favorite]


solipsophistocracy: "I love the irony that people are often willing to accept scientist's arguments on authority when science exists so that they don't have to.

I understand that even highly trained scientists don't necessarily have the background to investigate claims from outside their disciplines, but it still makes me laugh when people QUOTE SCIENCE as if it was gospel.
"

I have similar concerns, but wouldn't have a problem at all with people quoting science as an authority if we had some world wide culture wherein people realized scientific facts are just the theories that are best supported by experiments designed and run by fallible humans who are subject to every problem everyone else is.

It can be an amazing experience when a person realizes the inherent problems and failings of science as carried out by humans, and then realizes those errors are why facts change and ideas are dropped he finally understands why science is so fucking cool. It's a field that is studying a changing universe and at the same time constantly adapting to new knowledge; constantly finding, accepting, and overcoming problems that its practitioners find.

Find a new find a new bug, gene, atom, or planet and you're a rockstar. Find a proof about why an idea about a bug, gene, atom, or planet is wrong and offer a better theory and you're just as big a rockstar.
posted by Science! at 1:01 PM on March 31, 2009 [2 favorites]


Also being a scientist means you don't have to double check your grammar on MetaTalk.
posted by Science! at 1:03 PM on March 31, 2009


The discussion KevinSkomsvold links to is of John Hardwig's 1985 article "Epistemic Dependence". Hardwig has written extensively on this issue, and on other issues of practical epistemology and ethics.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:04 PM on March 31, 2009


I love the irony that people are often willing to accept scientist's arguments on authority when science exists so that they don't have to.

Unless you're willing to devote your life to the recreation of original research, it's kind of practical. It's reasonable to accept the agreements of science-based systems based on an understanding of how those agreements were arrived at (generally), understanding that what Science! says is also true, and that future findings as reviewed will fit even better within the rules of the game.
posted by Miko at 2:36 PM on March 31, 2009


The trouble is that even good scientists sometimes fail at being scientists. The revelation that Millikan cooked his books on measuring the charge on the electron shows (to me at least) that you can be right and wrong at the same time, which makes it even harder to figure out who is completely wrong.
posted by GuyZero at 2:50 PM on March 31, 2009


That's why the peer replication and review bit is so important.
posted by Miko at 4:01 PM on March 31, 2009


You can quote "science" as if it were gospel, because generally it's backed by theory and evidence.
posted by empath at 6:44 PM on March 31, 2009


If you don't trust science, you have every reason to trust my soon-to-be entry into the Metafilter Interactive Fiction Contest, entitled Let Us Burn Down Science. (link is to an ad for the piece... not the piece...)

I really shouldn't be reading this thread, but trying to figure out how to make fire work in this goddammed text adventure world. One hour left!
posted by pokermonk at 8:52 PM on March 31, 2009


You can quote "science" as if it were gospel, because generally it's backed by theory and evidence.

"SCIENCE!", on the other hand...
posted by qvantamon at 9:10 PM on March 31, 2009


it's rational for a layperson to believe what scientists say, even if you haven't figured out the mechanics of how they arrived at their conclusions

I can say with some certainty that Feynman would never ever have said that. In his book The Pleasure of Finding Things Out he more or less says the very opposite! He coins the term "cargo cult science" (same speech is also reproduced in Surely You're joking Mr. Feynman!.

The term is taken from anthropology and the bottom line is that Feynman cautioned that to avoid becoming cargo cult scientists, researchers must first of all avoid fooling themselves, be willing to question and doubt their own theories and their own results, and investigate possible flaws in a theory or an experiment.

In other words, question everything! Especially yourself!

"We've learned from experience that the truth will come out. Other experimenters will repeat your experiment and find out whether you were wrong or right. Nature's phenomena will agree or they'll disagree with your theory. And, although you may gain some temporary fame and excitement, you will not gain a good reputation as a scientist if you haven't tried to be very careful in this kind of work. And it's this type of integrity, this kind of care not to fool yourself, that is missing to a large extent in much of the research in cargo cult science."

So unlike doctors, its

"question me, I'm a scientist".
posted by 5imian at 12:09 AM on April 1, 2009


I'm not convinced that Feynman would disagree with anything that's been said in this thread.
posted by Jaltcoh at 5:21 AM on April 1, 2009


Which is irrelevant anyway since Feynman was just a guess about who said the quotation. Turns out it was Weber.

Do you seriously not believe, say, that atoms and molecules exist, as long as you haven't personally figured it out yourself? Kudos to you if you can maintain that much skepticism; I can't, and I'd like to think I'm a rational person.
posted by Jaltcoh at 5:25 AM on April 1, 2009


But continuing your thought, Jaltcoh: I don't think Feynman would disagree with Weber's quote, but it does seem to be orthogonal to the way Feynman worked. He was not into learning about science or scientific methods by reading the existing literature. One of his mottos was "DISREGARD." And his colleague Murray Gell-Mann famously said: "'Dick's method is this. You write down the problem. You think very hard.' (Gell-Mann shuts his eyes and presses his knuckles periodically to his forehead.) 'You write down the answer.'" Feynman was one of the few who had less need for the assistance of the community; he would have done well as a savage.
posted by Mapes at 5:33 AM on April 1, 2009


He was not into learning about science or scientific methods by reading the existing literature. One of his mottos was "DISREGARD." And his colleague Murray Gell-Mann famously said: "'Dick's method is this. You write down the problem. You think very hard.'

Well, I think that makes it clear that people's invocations of Feynman in this thread aren't relevant to what I'm asking about. I'm talking about the layperson's perspective. I am not a scientist and am not capable of figuring out how stuff works. Am I supposed to have no beliefs about anything scientific? I find it hard to believe anyone who's participated in this thread would really make that contention and be willing to apply it to specific examples. The idea that you should "DISREGARD" everything people have said before may be inspiring to a scientist, but it's a non-starter for a layperson.
posted by Jaltcoh at 9:19 AM on April 1, 2009 [1 favorite]


I find it hard to believe

Exactly.
posted by The World Famous at 10:30 AM on April 1, 2009


Exactly...

...how to take someone's quote out of context, is what you've just shown.
posted by Jaltcoh at 10:31 AM on April 1, 2009


. . . someone's quote . . . is what you've just shown.

Exactly.
posted by The World Famous at 10:41 AM on April 1, 2009


« Older Memail html.   |   Hunch invites up for grabs. Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments