Richard Feynman made the point in a graduation address at Cal Tech that "the first principle of science is that you must not fool yourself--and you are the easiest person to fool." (Feynman, 1974)
And he is certainly correct; we are easy to fool.
Our Sun is powered by nuclear fusion which takes place under the tremendous heat and pressure at the Sun's core. If we could create a controlled fusion reaction on Earth, we would have an unlimited source of inexpensive energy. But our efforts to create the tremendous heat and pressure to permit controlled nuclear fusion have been unsuccessful thus far. Further, there is no currently accepted theoretical model that would support the creation of a fusion reaction at room temperature.
Despite these cautionary facts, there was a huge outpouring of enthusiastically reported news when two University of Utah professors reported that they had conducted an experiment that produced excess heat and products that could only be explained as the byproducts of nuclear fusion. Even more wonderful was the fact that this experiment had been conducted at normal temperatures and pressures in a simple apparatus running on a desktop.
The scientists' faces were everywhere. Investors rushed to give money to the scientists' university to create a cold fusion center to develop the commercial possibilities of the discovery. Alas! The dream quickly evaporated when other scientists were unable to replicate the experiment and the products from the experiment turned out not to be the by-products of nuclear fusion after all.
Feynman was correct: we are the easiest person to fool. We fool ourselves because of "our willingness to believe in a version of the world where everything really is for the best--at least when it comes to us." (Konnikova, 2015)
And there is another reason. We fool ourselves becausee wee are all what hte mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell called naive realists and accept "the doctrine that things are what they seem. We think that grass is green, that stones are hard, and that snow is cold." (Mlodinow, 2009, p. 195)
Science has revealed that the green grass and other familiar elements of our common sense world turn out to be not grass or stones or snow but in reality combinations of atoms, molecules, energy, and motion.
While we describe our common sense world by telling stories about it ("I cut the grass."); we use mathematics to describe the actions and interactions of atoms and molecules. While we are accustomed to thinking about actions as the outcome of intentions ("I would like to eat now."), atoms and molecules interact because they are engaged in what mathematicians term "the drunkard's walk" or "random motion, such as the paths that molecules follow as they fly through space, incessantly bumping, and being bumped by their sister molecules."
While we believe in a world that is ruled by our intentions and that specific actions have specifiable causes, the reality is a world which in the words of Nobel Laureate Max Born, "chance is a more fundamental conception than causality." (Mlodinow, 2009, p. ii and 195)
In the book The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, Leonard Mlodinow describes a fundamental problem. Our beliefs and intuitions let us down when it comes to random processes. Since at least the 1930s, systematic investigations have demonstrated that we humans do not reason well in situations that include chance. We misunderstand the information generated by tests like the SAT; investors draw erroneous conclusions from the historical performance of mutual funds; wine connoisseurs don't understand wine ratings. A good performance is attributed to high ability and the judgment is confounded when the next performance is only average. "What happened to you?" is the question.
In all of the scientific fields, randomness and chance are recognized as playing key roles in understanding natural phenomena.
As Mlodinow observes, "the human mind is built to identify for each event a definite cause" and this makes it difficult to accept that an outcomme may have been influenced by random or unrelated factors.
Edward Lorenz, a climatologist at M.I.T., ran a climate model using data expressed as six digits (0.293416). Then he reran the same model using the same data except with fewer significant digits (0.293). He expected that he would see the weather develop as it had in the first iteration but with minor changes. He was surprised to find that the minor changes led to massive changes in the new results. The finding is now known as the butterfly effect. The flapping of a butterfly's wings in Brazil may cause a hurricane in the Atlantic.
Understanding the random matters a great deal if understanding the sciences matters.
As the authors of A Framework for K-12 Science Education describe the importance of computational thought, they note that "much of modern science, predictions and inferences have a probabilistic nature, so understanding the mathematics of probability and of statistically derived inferences is an important part of understanding science." (Quinn, 2013, p. 64)
In the practices section of A Framework, "computational thinking" means more than "using math." Statistical techniques for the testing patterns, equations that model physical behaviors of objects, simulations of processes along with other math-based methods are the principal tools scientists use to understand natural phenomena.
These are the tools that scientists use to avoid fooling themselves.
Feynman, R. (1974). Cargo Cult Science.
Konnikova, M. (2015). Born to Be Conned. New York Times, p. SR1.
Mlodinow, L. (2008). The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives. New York: Pantheon Books.
Quinn, Helen R., Schweingruber, Heidi, Keller, Thomas, & others. A Framework for K-12 Science Education: Practices, Crosscutting Concepts, and Core Ideas. Washington, DC: National Research Council of the National Academies.
Dr. John Holton
Dr. John Holton joined the S²TEM Centers SC in July of 2013, as a research associate with an emphasis on the STEM literature including state and local STEM plans from around the nation.