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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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Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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