Richard Feynman, one of the 20th centuries greatest scientists, talks to us about climate science

Summary:  Climate science is one of our times most important areas of research, and as such the natural and inevitable conflicts inherent in the process of science become most visible.  In this speech one of the greatest physists of the 20th century explains why science is so difficult:  much of it is contrary to our natural behavior.  The mechanisms of science have evolved to provide checks to distortions inevitable in any human community.  They work well, but slowly.

This post gives an excerpt from “Cargo Cult Science“, Richard Feynman.  The speech, one of the most insightful from his long and varied career, deserves to be read in full.

Background:  See his impressive Wikipedia entry.  This excerpt is from the book Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”.  This was in turn adapted from his 1974 Caltech commencement address, which was published in Engineering and Science, Volume 37:7, June 1974 (PDF here).

Wikipedia entry for Cargo Cults:

A cargo cult may appear in tribal societies in the wake of interaction with technologically advanced, non-native cultures. The cult is focused on obtaining the material wealth of the advanced culture through magical thinking, religious rituals and practices, believing that the wealth was intended for them by their deities and ancestors.

Excerpt (headings are added)

What is cargo cult science?

I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.

Now it behooves me, of course, to tell you what they’re missing. But it would be just about as difficult to explain to the South Sea islanders how they have to arrange things so that they get some wealth in their system. It is not something simple like telling them how to improve the shapes of the earphones. But there is one feature I notice that is generally missing in cargo cult science. That is the idea that we all hope you have learned in studying science in school – we never say explicitly what this is, but just hope that you catch on by all the examples of scientific investigation.

The special kind of integrity science needs (but does not always get)

It is interesting, therefore, to bring it out now and speak of it explicitly. It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty – a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid – not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked – to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can – if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong – to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem.

When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.

In summary, the idea is to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgement in one particular direction or another.

The importance of replication

… 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.

… But this long history of learning how to not fool ourselves – of having utter scientific integrity – is, I’m sorry to say, something that we haven’t specifically included in any particular course that I know of. We just hope you’ve caught on by osmosis. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.

Telling the truth — or saying what’s necessary to get funded?

I would like to add something that’s not essential to the science, but something I kind of believe, which is that you should not fool the layman when you’re talking as a scientist. I am not trying to tell you what to do about cheating on your wife, or fooling your girlfriend, or something like that, when you’re not trying to be a scientist, but just trying to be an ordinary human being. We’ll leave those problems up to you and your rabbi. I’m talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you’re maybe wrong, that you ought to have when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as scientists, certainly to other scientists, and I think to laymen.

For example, I was a little surprised when I was talking to a friend who was going to go on the radio. He does work on cosmology and astronomy, and he wondered how he would explain what the applications of his work were. “Well”, I said, “there aren’t any”. He said, “Yes, but then we won’t get support for more research of this kind”. I think that’s kind of dishonest. If you’re representing yourself as a scientist, then you should explain to the layman what you’re doing – and if they don’t support you under those circumstances, then that’s their decision.

The importance of replicating resutls — and why scientists sometimes don’t do so

… Other kinds of errors are more characteristic of poor science. When I was at Cornell, I often talked to the people in the psychology department. One of the students told me she wanted to do an experiment that went something like this – it had been found by others that under certain circumstances, X, rats did something, A. She was curious as to whether, if she changed the circumstances to Y, they would still do A. So her proposal was to do the experiment under circumstances Y and see if they still did A.

I explained to her that it was necessary first to repeat in her laboratory the experiment of the other person – to do it under condition X to see if she could also get result A, and then change to Y and see if A changed. Then she would know the real difference was the thing she thought she had under control.

She was very delighted with this new idea, and went to her professor. And his reply was, no, you cannot do that, because the experiment has already been done and you would be wasting time. This was in about 1947 or so, and it seems to have been the general policy then to not try to repeat psychological experiments, but only to change the conditions and see what happened.

The history of rat testing

{Not included, but one of the most powerful parts of the essay.}

Conclusion

… So I have just one wish for you – the good luck to be somewhere where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have described, and where you do not feel forced by a need to maintain your position in the organization, or financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity. May you have that freedom.

Applying these insights to modern climate science

Just one of many easily seen examples of the natural but unfortunate trails describe by Feynman, seen too-often in climate science:

In response to a request for supporting data, Philip Jones, a prominent researcher {University of East Anglia} said “We have 25 or so years invested in the work. Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it?”

– From the testimony of Stephen McIntyre before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce (the July 2006 hearings which produced the Wegman Report).

As Feynman says, the steady march of science will sort these things out and the truth will be revealed.  I believe it is too soon to say either way.  As Steve McIntyre said (source; one of his countless statements like this):

“Serious people believe that it {AGW} is an issue. There’s a lot of promotion and hype, but that doesn’t mean that, underneath it all, there isn’t a problem. No one’s shown that it’s not an issue. The hardest part for someone trying to understand the issue from first principles is locating a clear A-to-B exposition of how doubled CO2 produces a problem and I’m afraid that no one’s been able to give such a reference to me – the excuse is that such an exposition is too “routine” for climate scientists. That’s the first attitude than has to change.”

Afterword

Please share your comments by posting below.  Per the FM site’s Comment Policy, please make them brief (250 words max), civil, and relevant to this post.  Or email me at fabmaximus at hotmail dot com (note the spam-protected spelling).

For information about this site see the About page, at the top of the right-side menu bar.

For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar. Of esp relevance to this topic:

Some posts on the FM site about climate science:

  1. An article giving strong evidence of global warming, 30 June 2008
  2. More forecasts of a global cooling cycle, 15 July 2008
  3. Two valuable perspectives on global warming, 4 August 2008
  4. Good news about global warming!, 21 October 2008 – More evidence of cooling.
  5. Watching the world change before our eyes, 29 November 2008
  6. This week’s report on the news in climate science, 7 December 2008
  7. Weekend reading recommenations about climate change, 13 December 2008
  8. An important new article about climate change, 29 December 2008
  9. My “wish list” for the climate sciences in 2009, 2 January 2009
  10. Important new climate science articles, 11 January 2009
  11. Climate science articles which you might enjoy reading!, 18 January 2009
  12. How warm is the Earth? How do we measure it?, 28 January 2009
  13. Science in action, a confused and often nasty debate among scientists, 5 February 2009

20 thoughts on “Richard Feynman, one of the 20th centuries greatest scientists, talks to us about climate science

  1. Thank you for the article by Professor Feynmann. Although I am a scientist by profession, I study history part-time at night in a local MA program. Imagine my surprise when a course on the history of the US since 1945 contained a sceeening of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.” The professor, a historian and not a scientist, stated words to the effect that since global warming/climate change is now an established fact, it would covered in the course. It goes without saying that he did not have an opposing viewpoint, a rebuttal to Gore, on his syllabus.

    Nor did the professor mention that 9,000 scientists have signed a petition questioning the wisdom of global warming alarmism. By the way, 3,000 of those scientists are Ph.D.-level researchers.

    In short, global warming has become a form of received wisdom, an orthodoxy not subject to doubt, on many of our campuses.

  2. Unfortunately, the media has done a terrible job of educating the lay person about global warming/climate change (they’ve done a good job at scare-mongering). For the lay person, here’s a list of scientists who disagree (and their quotes) with GW theory.

    Here are charts that tell the real story.
    .
    .
    Fabius Maximus replies: Lists of scientists are a political tool, of zero interest to me. Also, the “real story” is that the debate continues — with both sides having a strong case at this point.

  3. Gavin over at RealClimate takes on directly some of these issues. I recommend a read of his recent posting.
    .
    .
    Fabius Maximus replies: This is IMO the weakest post (and thread) at RealClimate (that is, the discussion about replication; there are other issues jumbled into the thread). It is an elaborate exercise in “throwing dust in the air” to obscure a simple issue: the need to disclose methods and data to allow replication. His conclusion is a classic strawman arguement: “Ease of replicability does not correlate to the quality of the scientific result.” Did anybody claim it did? Bizzarre.

    As Ross McKitrick goes to the heart of what is a simple issue, in comment #62:

    The immediate point of your post seems, to me, to be that there is a difference between reproducing results versus replicating an effect; and a difference between necessary and sufficient disclosure for replication. Full disclosure of data and code sufficient for reproducing the results does not ensure an effect can be replicated on a new data set: Agreed. But that is not an argument against full disclosure of data and code. Such disclosure substantially reduces the time cost for people to investigate the effect, it makes it easy to discover and correct coding and calculation errors…

  4. One can’t say what the late Richard Feynman would say about today’s global warming science, but I’d be willing to be bet he would share the same views as Freeman Dyson – it’s bogus. And I guarantee, if the point of your piece was the integrity of science, Dr. Feynman would be absolutely livid at the antics of scientist Gavin Schmidt and the realclimate.org crowd.

    You’re right that a list of names should not be important but when the American public is constantly being told that the “debate is settled” and there is a “scientific consensus,” and both statements are patently false, then a “list” of experts takes on new meaning and purpose. Unfortunately, for all of us, climate science was turned into climate politics by a former VP with a definitive political agenda.
    .
    .
    Fabius Maximus replies: I agree on all points.

    The original point of the FM articles about climate change was a discussion of our national decision-making loop, how the combination of intense propaganda and “religiosity” have distorted our thinking about this vital issue. Readers forced at long detour, to demonstrate that the science is not settled. After 38 posts, I have laid an adequate foundation for return to my original theme.

  5. yo FM — did you ever think maybe you should just avoid writing on climate-related topics altogether?

    i enjoy your writing on most other topics and share a lot of your views, but frankly your skepticism on climate change makes me take your other writing less seriously and im sure my viewpoint is widely shared. something to think about.
    .
    .
    Fabius Maximus replies: Does my citing all those scientists disturb you? Its a common problem. Scietnific research is often disturbing to the “faithful”.

    Cognitive dissonance can be painful. Perhaps you should adopt the Oldsketpic’s solution: Scientists are reliable guides and sources of information. Scientists who challenge my beliefs do not understand basic science; they are incompetent. (See here and here for examples).

  6. Thanks for Feynmann, indeed a giant. Plus this almost perfect quote of what is missing in (former Global Warming, now) Climate Change:
    locating a clear A-to-B exposition of how doubled CO2 produces a problem

    It would be good to also note what those CO2 percentages are, something like 0.1% rising to 0.2%? (I’m not going to look it up now, but it seems to me quite an important ommission from both sides.) FM?

    Plants grow faster with more CO2. Probably the weather patterns will change a little, or a lot, or inconsistently.

    We should be looking for more renewable energy in any case. Maybe try to desalinate water cheaply so as to irrigate deserts.

    The Amazon is re-growing faster than previous estimates expected.
    .
    .
    Fabius Maximus replies: Two articles about these things.
    * “High CO2 boosts plant respiration, potentially affecting climate and crops“, U of IL, 9 February 2009.

  7. In all the three schools I went to, this kind of osmotic transmission of science ethics was occurring constantly. Science is definitely a subculture. A club if you like. To be a member in good standing, you will internalize the values stated above, or else. There is lineage. In hushed tones, students whisper,”He was a student of Feynman’s”, or “He knew Bohr when he was at Gottingen”. Science is very human. The popular notion of scientists as “Mr. Spock” logical robot types is laughable to us scientists. We want our “children”, i.e. our students, to do us proud, therefore we teach them what is important to us. First on the list is respect for the process of scientific inquiry. If AGW proponents try to attach this bedrock culture, they should brace for a hurricane force reaction. In science, these are the sins that are so serious, we do not state them explicitly too often. These are our deadly sins. Those who commit them now do so at their peril.

  8. When I was in graduate school Dr. Feynman gave a seminar on
    this very subject. He started his “talk” by holding up the physics
    book we used as a reference and tore out two pages and threw the rest of the book in a “trash can”. Dr. Feynman then stated that the pages
    he held were the only “science” in the book not disproved. I later picked up the two pages he had torn from the book. They were basic science taught in high school. The subject of his seminar was “Be a Skeptic”

  9. Modern systems of education (cargo cults) are not based upon the development of the skeptical, intentional, prefrontal lobes of the brain. Veridical facts rather than intentional modes of exploratory thought. No wonder most people speak in terms of “belief” or “disbelief” of global warming, evolution, or god. As if these things are “facts” that can be looked up in an authoritative reference book!

    They never learned to think for themselves, as this is not a priority of modern education. Rather, politically correct beliefs are the important thing from K through 12 through 16 through 20 and on. They want to be “right”, they will kill or die to be “right.” What dunces. It is not about being right. It is about using your brain.

  10. To Pete #1. You might find this Court Case about Gore’s film being shown to students in the UK of interest: “Inaccuracies in Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth“, posted at The New Party, no date.
    .
    .
    Fabius Maximus replies: Time and analysis has not been kind to Gore’s film. These posts show what a travesty it makes of the scientific record. For a quick review, I recommend reading these articles by Steve McIntyre at Climate Audit.

    * “IPCC and the Al Gore Hockey Stick“, 30 April 2007
    * “Al Gore and Dr Thompson’s Thermometer“, 9 November 2007
    * “Al Gore and “Dr Thompson’s Thermometer” #2″, 10 November 2007
    * “Schakowsky: ‘a different source which our staff had confirmed with Al Gore’“, 15 November 2007
    * “Gore Scientific ‘Adviser’ says that he has no ‘responsibility’ for AIT errors“, 13 January 2008

  11. Over the last few years, I have read and seen pictures of ancient ice shelves breaking free and floating away. (Wilkins, Ayles, etc). Pro-AGW types claim this as strong evidence supporting climate change.

    I have not seen many AGW skeptics address this point. FM, do you know of any links where I could explore plausible explanations of this phenomena in a non-AGW world?
    .
    .
    Fabius Maximus replies: I do not understand your point. Is there any expert who believes that the climate is not changing? That is an implicit assumption of pro-AGW propaganda, that the climate has some base state it maintains unless bad humanity ruins it.

    In fact, every expert of which I know believes the Earth is warming. The question concerns the reason. How much is natural, perhaps a recovery from the Little Ice Age, and how much results from human activity?

  12. Ael: “I have not seen many AGW skeptics address this point. FM, do you know of any links where I could explore plausible explanations of this phenomena in a non-AGW world?”

    There’ve been icebergs being formed off these shelves for eons. You’d have to think that they naturally fluctuate back and forth in size just like glaciers on top of mountains do. I think that is just common sense interpretation of limited observations of the Antarctic and Arctic ice shelves, and passes the Ockham’s Razor test. It doesn’t require an involved explanation like AGW.

    How “ancient” are these shelves anyway? Maybe a thousand years old? See “Antarctica’s Wilkins Ice Shelf eroding at an unforeseen pace“, Christian Science Monitor, 28 March 2008 — Excerpt:

    “Although it’s been stable for as long as scientists have been able to reach the continent and study it, the shelf scientists see crumbling today appears to have formed either between the Roman era and the Medieval Warm Period or with the onset of the Little Ice Age.”

    We’ve only been observing them for about 200 years, intensively in a scientific manner only about 30-50 years. That’s hardly enough time to establish a “trend” in natural phenomena, because one has no idea of the historic mean. Wilkins ice shelf is less than 1% of the total area of Antarctic ice shelves. If Antarctica loses one Wilkins size ice shelf every few decades (is there any reason to think they are collapsing any faster than that?), the natural replenishment of the shelves by their continuing formation is in equilibrium.

    OTOH, if many of these ice shelves are relics of the Little Ice Age, than the Earth’s continued recovery from that cold spell is a simple natural reason for the shelves again disappearing. Given that low-lying lands like Florida and Bangladesh still existed in the medieval warm period, threats of “rising sea levels” from a return to a similar climate seems misplaced and agenda-driven.

    AGW proponents cardinal mistake is assuming the climate of the 1850-1950 period is somehow “normal” and must be retained against supposed climate change caused by industrialization, even though the Earth has obviously experienced significant natural temperature swings far in excess of anything AGW proponents predict.
    .
    .
    Fabius Maximus replies: You raise a point often ignored. When we have a short baseline of observations — often only a few decades of accurate observations — it is easy for natural phenomena to move at “record” rates. Long-term records are usually produced using proxies, a speculative process at best.

  13. I have heard it reported that the oldest ice in the Ayles ice shelf was 3000 years old. I don’t know how old the oldest ice in the Wilkins one was.

    The Larsen B ice shelf had ice that was apparently 10,000-20,000 years old.
    http://globalpublicmedia.com/transcripts/457
    http://antarcticsun.usap.gov/science/contentHandler.cfm?id=1482

    This is third hand reporting, I have no special knowledge.
    .
    .
    Fabius Maximus replies: Me, neither. But as the last ice age fades into the past, should we not expect to see melting of ancient ice? And, on a shorter time scale, as temperatures bounce from the lows of the Little Ice Age, should we not expect melting of 200-500 year old ice?

    As a reminder of cold within recent history, as climate cycles go, see this: “1709: The year that Europe froze“, New Scientist, 7 February 2009.

  14. FM: “You raise a point often ignored. When we have a short baseline of observations — often only a few decades of accurate observations — it is easy for natural phenomena to move at “record” rates. Long-term records are usually produced using proxies, a speculative process at best.”

    The same note applies to economics and proclimations that “the worst whatever event” just happened, when the record only goes back 40 years.

    OTOH, the main topic of your blog, geopolitics and war has a rather lengthy record of recorded history going back thousands of years. Mistakes made by the Egyptian and Persian and Chinese Empires of the era before Christ can be read about and learned from today.
    .
    .
    Fabius Maximus replies: Great point, thanks!

  15. Fine link, FM, which almost answers my CO2 question:
    Some of the plants were exposed to atmospheric CO2 levels of 550 parts per million (ppm), the level predicted for the year 2050 if current trends continue. These were compared to plants grown at ambient CO2 levels (380 ppm).
    380 ppm is 0.000380 = 0.0380% of the atmosphere. So 0.038% rising to 0.055% of CO2 is admittedly a huge % increase in CO2, but it’s a tiny fraction of air.

    Doubling tiny tiny is still tiny.
    .
    .
    Fabius Maximus replies: The models show increased warming as a result of “forcings”, largely feedback cycles. Warming increases amount of evaporation, the additional water vapor acts as a powerful greenhouse gas. More warming.

  16. A Norwegian station is reporting 390 ppm CO2. That is 0.000390 or 0.039%. Recent research shows that plants grow faster, larger, and respire more as CO2 levels rise. Humans are adversely affected by CO2 levels when they reach 1 to 2% or roughly 20,000 ppm.

    Water as a greenhouse gas is problematic, given the many functions of water in the biosphere and atmosphere. Models predict many things, most of them apparently false. As Feynman might have said, you do not roll the dice on civilization based upon computer programs that are nothing more than hypotheses themselves.

    Cargo cult science is precisely the right term for what is coming out of many “climate” computer labs. At least we know they will be getting bigger and more expensive computers now under President Obama!

  17. Ice melts all the time. You would expect that even old ice would melt from time to time. It seems to me that old ice can tell us interesting things about climate. I personally, can only guess at what it means for an ice shelf to collapse. That is why I am looking for articles written about the loss of old ice. Is it what you might expect? more? less?
    .
    .
    Fabius Maximus replies: Ice does not “melt all the time” at the poles. In fact, it very seldom melts in the core (coldest) parts of Antarctica, where the small amount of snowfall (it’s very dry) accumulates from year to year. Hence sites get buried in the normal course of events (this is a factor adding the uncertainty in the Steig 2009 article in Nature, as people wonder how he corrected for buried automatic weather stations).

    As for finding research on this, try Google. There is probably a large body of research. As a start, look at The Cryosphere Today, published by the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Illinois.

    As for what I expect, not being a climate scientist I expect nothing. I just report on their work.

  18. Fine, enjoy. YOU HAVE WON. Stop banging on about it. There are no limitations on CO2 anywhere. The human race is doing nothing about CO2 production. Some are going backwards (e.g Scotland). So we are now going to find who is right over the next 20-50 years. ‘The great experiment’ is going to happen. You all should be happy. FM have a party. You have won. You have won everything. Excepting Iran and the GFC, nothing is being done anywhere to reduce fossil fuel usage, rather we are expanding it.

    Nothing. Germany is building a new coal fired power station. Scotland has declared no nuclear power and opening up the coal mines. Australia has an Emmisions Trading Scheme, that rewards polluters, and penalises rail transport (more cars, more cars, more trucks, more tollways they cry). We are all going to burn oil and coal until there is nothing left ..
    and then see what happens.

    Perhaps like the 1980’s arguments, the neo-liberals vs the smart people. They won that argument. Got everthing they wanted. Whoops, as predicted by some: the Global Financial Collapse. Is this an example?

    Global Warming .. well my advice to FM is, never, ever mention it again. Until 2013. Then we can see who has won that argument. The other side? By 2013 by their own arguments the Earth will be as cool as it was in (say) 1980 (trend of course).

    And I will pay for FM to come to Australia where I will publicly eat humble pie in the public forum he chooses. Meanwhile we bury our dead (ashes) in Australia.
    .
    .
    Fabius Maximus replies: Oldskeptic is entitled to his own opinions, but I wish he would stop making up stuff and attributing it to me. After so many rounds of discussion, he has been reduced to just writing lies about my position. Note he gives no quotes (as usual) to support the bizarre views he attributes to me.

    I will go through this again.

    (1) I have never taken a position on who is correct in the climate science debate. As Steve McIntyre said (source; one of his countless statements like this — which I have quoted many times.

    “Serious people believe that it {AGW} is an issue. There’s a lot of promotion and hype, but that doesn’t mean that, underneath it all, there isn’t a problem. No one’s shown that it’s not an issue.”

    (2) My position — consistent from the first post on the subject — has been that there is a debate about AGW, that the science is not settled. IMO I have clearly showed this to be correct, in several different ways.

    (3) Based on the above, I have advocated more funding and improved practices for climate science so that these issues can be resolved quickly. For example, see My “wish list” for the climate sciences in 2009, 2 January 2009:

    What would put the climate sciences on track to meet our public policy needs? Here’s my list of things that must be done, whatever the cost — although it would be trivial compared, for instance, to global military spending.
    * Raise the standards when applying science research to public policy questions.
    * Provide greater transparency of data and methods used in climate science research.
    * Provide third party review of the data, analysis, and modeling is necessary.
    * Rationally apply the precautionary principle.

Leave a Reply