Blinded by (ignoring the) Science

Feynman diagram dreamstime m 89989487In the wake of the recent celebrations of science and scientists, I could not let the occasion go without a mention of the late Richard Feynman. For those of you not familiar with the name, Feynman, as well as being a brilliant scientist, was also a fascinating human being and a bit of a maverick who delighted in upending normal thinking and throwing the occasional curve-ball.

In his second book “What Do You Care What Other People Think: Further Adventures of a Curious Character?”, Feynman describes how he was once intrigued at how the brain tracks time, and was curious to see how accurately he could gauge one minute by counting.

Feynman found that his brain-clock was too fast, and that counting to 60 in his head always took only around 48 seconds. Attempts made to improve accuracy by using guesswork without counting proved inconsistent and erratic, so Feynman concentrated on keeping his rate of counting consistent. He rationalized that it was more advantageous to utilize what the brain was already doing well than to try and train it to work differently.

From there he employed all sorts of tricks to see what might affect his count, and found that talking at the same time really messed things up, as his talking interfered with the voice in his head doing the counting. A curious character indeed.

Richard Feynman was known as “The Great Explainer”, and although his work mostly involved quantum physics (Google it), his non-technical publications are wonderfully entertaining and thought-provoking. For those yet to discover his warmth, wit, and wisdom, I suggest starting with “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman: Adventures of a Curious Character”. Knowledge of quantum physics not required.

weather dreamstime m 39471041We all benefit from science, even when it comes to that oldest and constantly changing natural phenomenon – the weather. While we now have wonderful storm tracking tools and warnings that save lives and minimize damage potential, we also tend to use the same technology to answer such simple questions as “is it likely to rain today”.

A quick look at anything with a screen will supply masses of wonderful information in addition to answering the question, but wouldn’t it be more fun and satisfying if we’d reached the same answer by other, more thought-invoking means?

Back in the day, farmers, sailors, and other outdoorspeople would forecast the weather by observation. Cloud type, pattern, and direction; wind strength and direction; humidity; temperature; a glance at the barometer followed by a tap on the glass. It’s all there, as free as the wind, and ready for us to put to use. I swear that the birds and critters in my garden forage more rigorously just before an impending rainstorm, and that the asparagus stays subterranean.

All it takes is for us to employ our brains and senses (no batteries required), and then confirm the results with modern methods if we’re too wimpy to wait and see if we’re right.

Feynman would stress to researchers that it is imperative to keep an open mind on what the results of a particular test might be. Wanting to prove something as either right or wrong opens up the mind to the possibility of a bias one way or the other, and this can also influence how the tests are conducted along with swaying the results. Better to perform a test with a completely open mind and then use the results to formulate an opinion, or as Feynman put it: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.

All current and aspiring marine refrigeration and air conditioning techs out there, myself included, would be well advised to heed the above and engage with it. Our office here is currently having to deal with the fallout from far too many cases of incorrect diagnosis of refrigeration and air conditioning problems, and the malaise shows no sign of abating.

Connecting refrigerant gauges to a system as the first step of a diagnostic process introduces the possibility of the mind being biased to one possible ailment based on just one piece of evidence. Better that we first observe and mentally collate all of the readily available clues and symptoms, just like with the weather, and then formulate a diagnosis. Connecting the gauges at this point will then help uphold or deny our suspicions while removing some of the doubt.

Let us allow the evidence of science to speak before letting our pre-conceived ideas sway us one way or another, but always keeping the mind open for the unexpected. As Feynman once said: “We absolutely must leave room for doubt or there is no progress and no learning.

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