How to Use the Feynman Technique to Identify Pseudoscience

Richard Feynman's method for understanding science can also be used for detecting pseudoscience.

In late 2015, a study made headlines worldwide by bluntly demonstrating the human capacity to be misled by “pseudo-profound bullshit” from the likes of Deepak Chopra, infamous for making profound sounding yet entirely meaningless statements by abusing scientific language.


This is all well and good, but how are we supposed to know that we are being misled when we read a quote about quantum theory from someone like Chopra, if we don’t know the first thing about quantum mechanics?

In a lecture given by Richard Feynman in 1966, the influential theoretical physicist told a story about the difference between knowing the name for something and truly understanding it:

“This boy said to me, 'See that bird standing on the stump there? What's the name of it?' I said, 'I haven't got the slightest idea.' He said, 'It’s a brown-throated thrush. Your father doesn't teach you much about science.' 

 I smiled to myself, because my father had already taught me that [the name] doesn't tell me anything about the bird. He taught me 'See that bird? It's a brown-throated thrush, but in Germany it's called a halsenflugel, and in Chinese they call it a chung ling and even if you know all those names for it, you still know nothing about the bird — you only know something about people; what they call that bird. Now that thrush sings, and teaches its young to fly, and flies so many miles away during the summer across the country, and nobody knows how it finds its way,' and so forth. There is a difference between the name of the thing and what goes on.

The result of this is that I cannot remember anybody's name, and when people discuss physics with me they often are exasperated when they say, 'the Fitz-Cronin effect,' and I ask, 'What is the effect?' and I can't remember the name."

Feynman went on: “There is a first grade science book which, in the first lesson of the first grade, begins in an unfortunate manner to teach science, because it starts off on the wrong idea of what science is. There is a picture of a dog — a windable toy dog — and a hand comes to the winder, and then the dog is able to move. Under the last picture, it says, 'What makes it move?' Later on, there is a picture of a real dog and the question, 'What makes it move?' Then there is a picture of a motorbike and the question, 'What makes it move?' and so on.

I thought at first they were getting ready to tell what science was going to be about — physics, biology, chemistry — but that wasn't it. The answer was in the teacher's edition of the book: The answer I was trying to learn is that 'energy makes it move.'

Now, energy is a very subtle concept. It is very, very difficult to get right. What I meant is that it is not easy to understand energy well enough to use it right, so that you can deduce something correctly using the energy idea — it is beyond the first grade. It would be equally well to say that 'God makes it move,' or, 'Spirit makes it move,' or, 'Movability makes it move.' (In fact, one could equally well say, 'Energy makes it stop.')

Look at it this way: That’s only the definition of energy; it should be reversed. We might say when something can move that it has energy in it, but not what makes it move is energy. This is a very subtle difference. It's the same with this inertia proposition.

Perhaps I can make the difference a little clearer this way: If you ask a child what makes the toy dog move, you should think about what an ordinary human being would answer. The answer is that you wound up the spring; it tries to unwind and pushes the gear around.

What a good way to begin a science course! Take apart the toy; see how it works. See the cleverness of the gears; see the ratchets. Learn something about the toy, the way the toy is put together, the ingenuity of people devising the ratchets and other things. That's good. The question is fine. The answer is a little unfortunate, because what they were trying to do is teach a definition of what is energy. But nothing whatever is learned.

Suppose a student would say, 'I don't think energy makes it move.' Where does the discussion go from there?

I finally figured out a way to test whether you have taught an idea or you have only taught a definition. Test it this way: You say, 'Without using the new word which you have just learned, try to rephrase what you have just learned in your own language. Without using the word "energy," tell me what you know now about the dog's motion.' You cannot. So you learned nothing about science. That may be all right. You may not want to learn something about science right away. You have to learn definitions. But for the very first lesson, is that not possibly destructive? 

I think for lesson number one, to learn a mystic formula for answering questions is very bad. The book has some others: 'gravity makes it fall;' 'the soles of your shoes wear out because of friction.' Shoe leather wears out because it rubs against the sidewalk and the little notches and bumps on the sidewalk grab pieces and pull them off. To simply say it is because of friction, is sad, because it's not science.”

Feynman’s parable about the meaning of science is a valuable way of testing ourselves on whether we have really learned something, or whether we just think we have learned something, but it is equally useful for testing the claims of others. If someone cannot explain something in plain English, then we should question whether they really do themselves understand what they profess. If the person in question is communicating ostensibly to a non-specialist audience using specialist terms out of context, the first question on our lips should be: "Why?" In the words of Feyman, “It is possible to follow form and call it science, but that is pseudoscience.”

Follow Simon Oxenham @Neurobonkers on TwitterFacebookRSS or join the mailing list. Image Credit: Adapted from Wikimedia Commons.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.