“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”
Feynman was an amazing guy. If you have some free time, go to YouTube and check out the interviews that he did with the BBC. Just watching him, you can see the deep love and admiration he had not just for the universe as we know it, but for science – the process by which the universe becomes understandable.
He was a physicist, a Nobel Prize winner, a bongo player, a safecracker, and a ladies’ man. He had a hand in the atom bomb and helped us understand some of the most fundamental forces in nature. And he did it with an energetic and electric personality that made him into one of the rock stars of science.
The quote comes in the middle of his commencement address to CalTech in 1974, later adapted into an essay called “Cargo Cult Science.” The title comes from the way unscientific things are treated like science – education, justice, advertising – and why they’re not. They might look like science, and people might believe they’re science, much in the way the cargo cults of the South Seas believed their bamboo airports would attract airplanes, but they’re not. They’re missing a fundamental element that keeps them from truly being scientific.
What they lack, he says, is scientific integrity. There is a level of absolute honesty that is required of science in order to make it work. When you undertake a study or an experiment, you must reveal all the results – good and bad, friendly or not. You can’t just put forth the data that supports your ideas or the results that make you look good. You must be absolutely honest.
In order to do that, however, you have to be honest with yourself first. The rest of the quote goes as follows:
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.
His message is that if science is ever going to work, it demands complete honesty from everyone involved, especially the scientists doing the research. If you’re building on someone else’s data, you must first try to reproduce that data yourself. If your experiment isn’t working, start working on figuring out why. And if you’re wrong, then you’re wrong. Take your hypothesis and either adjust it or discard it, but don’t keep hammering away at an idea you know is a dud. Psuedoscience remains such because it is dependent on not telling the whole truth, or on making sure no one knows about the parts of your ideas that don’t work.
This idea is not confined to science, of course. We all fool ourselves in myriad and interesting ways, and it’s terribly easy to do. We buy things we don’t need because we fool ourselves into thinking we do. We get into – and get out of – relationships because we fool ourselves into thinking that it’s something it’s not. We fool ourselves about our jobs, our leaders, our families – there’s no limit to the ways we can re-interpret reality to make it fit our preconceived notions of what it should be.
In life, we are all very bad scientists.
We don’t have to be, though. The idea of being honest with yourself is as old as antiquity – the maxim to “know thyself” is attributed all the way back to Socrates, if not further. Self-knowledge is considered one of the keys to being a fully realized human being, and part of that self-knowledge is figuring out where you’ve lied to yourself.
It takes a certain mindfulness and humility to know when you’re being dishonest, and a readiness to accept the fact that you’re not necessarily the great person you think you are. But once you can start dealing with yourself honestly, it becomes a lot easier to be honest with other people.
If you’re into that kind of thing, anyway.