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Monthly Aphorism: On Science

  • If it disagrees with experiment, it is wrong.

That’s from Richard Feynman, who should know a thing or two about science and experiments.

The full quote, from a book review in Skeptical Inquirer (Sept/Oct 2011, p 57):

If it disagrees with experiment, it is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn’t make any difference how beautiful your guess is, how smart you are, who make the guess, or what his name is. If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.

We’ve all encountered folks with beliefs that simply don’t match up with reality; some of them are us. Many such beliefs are non-falsifiable, sometimes carefully phrased that way, making experiment irrelevant.

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  1. #1 by hexley ball on 2011-11-30 - 14:36

    “Many such beliefs are non-falsifiable, sometimes carefully phrased that way, making experiment irrelevant.”

    This reminds me of the way that very high-end audio gear is sometimes marketed on the basis of “belief”.

    The believers say that humans can sense minute differences in sound that instruments can’t measure. Hence, the argument goes, it is proper for a high-end device to cost much more than a lesser device with identical measured performance — because of those minute immeasurables.

    I guess they could be right. But then some of them go all Heisenberg when asked to put their beliefs to the test with double-blind or ABx auditioning: they object on the grounds that the very act of testing interferes with the aforementioned abilities. Hmmm.

    I’m siding with Richard Feynman on this one.

    • #2 by Ed on 2011-11-30 - 15:51

      very high-end audio gear

      The Mapleshade catalog arrives here every now & again; they used to be just recorded music, but evidently discovered the untapped potential of ultra-high-price audio. I can barely keep a straight face…

  2. #3 by david on 2011-11-30 - 15:12

    While I am profoundly pro-science and anti-woo, I have to submit there’s an addendum: “…or the experiment is.” Which has been known to happen from time to time…

    • #4 by Ed on 2011-11-30 - 15:53

      Which has been known to happen from time to timeā€¦

      Aye, although Feynman was one of those folks who never made the same mistake twice and nobody could remember when he’d made a mistake for the first time, either.

      Figuring out how those FTL neutrinos work will keep ’em busy for a while…

  3. #5 by Aki on 2011-12-01 - 02:26

    He received the Nobel Prize in Physics too.

    http://www.tcm.phy.cam.ac.uk/~bdj10/

  4. #6 by david on 2012-05-15 - 16:20

    The thing that Feynman didn’t feel he had to point out, and that all the idiots since don’t understand, is that this only applies to *good* experiments. One careful measurement may trump a thousand expert opinions, but a million careless-or-fraudulent measurements matter less than a milli-opinion… and we have a vast surplusage of them. Indeed in some fields the careless and fraudulent seems to be all that exists. (This is frustrating me immensely at the moment, so I had to rant. :P )

    • #7 by Ed on 2012-05-15 - 18:19

      this only applies to *good* experiments

      Hear, hear!

      Often you read of an experimental result that looks downright wrong, until you discover who did it and why, after which you understand that they’re using the word “experiment” in a very specific manner. They know what outcome they want, so they run an experiment to “prove” their conclusion.

      That’s not science, no matter what adjective they put in front of the word… [grumble]