Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts

Nobel prize winning physicist Richard P. Feynman famously said that “science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.” That might seem like an extraordinary, even borderline insane thing to say.

Science is many more things than that, of course, but Feynman’s quote expresses an important truth.

My own personal experience resonates not just with the quote itself, but with Feynman’s experience that led him to the realization behind it. Like Feynman, I was cured of my belief in experts primarily in one eye-opening experience.

Many years ago, long before the internet, probably during the 1980s, I was reading an interview with a nutritionist in which she claimed that mushrooms had little nutritional value. For some reason this felt wrong to me, and I grew curious. So I went to the public library, and in one of the shelves I found the thin plain white booklet white the official nutritional tables. Looking up button mushrooms, the numbers showed that they had ample amounts of several B vitamins. In fact, they had more of them than the whole grain bread this expert was recommending as a source of B vitamins.

At the time, it was a revelation to me that an expert in the field could make such a basic mistake when the very same booklet would have been sitting on her bookshelf, perhaps only an arms length away.  Granted, this was just a regular nutritionist, not a “world-class scientific expert”, but the world-class scientific expert were apparently no better. I learned this a few years later from another nutritionist, writing in New Scientist. He could tell me that this idea, that mushrooms had very little nutritional value, had been circulating among nutritionists for years.

I realized that what the experts agree on is sometimes hardly more than urban legends circulated among the experts themselves. I’m far from the only one to say that. As a matter of fact, there is an academic paper called Academic Urban Legends that uses a different example from nutritional science.

Many of the messages presented in respectable scientific publications are, in fact, based on various forms of rumors. Some of these rumors appear so frequently, and in such complex, colorful, and entertaining ways that we can think of them as academic urban legends. To illustrate this phenomenon, I draw upon a remarkable case in which a decimal point error appears to have misled millions into believing that spinach is a good nutritional source of iron.

The source of the problem, “decimal point error” is embarrassing to the guilty parties in a similar way to what i found in that white booklet and to what Feynman found in his life-changing experience.

In the book Surely You’re Joking Mr.  Feynman, Feynman recounts how he was misled by the experts on beta decay. If my understanding is correct, this was what stood between him and his Nobel prize winning discovery, since it seemed to contradict it. (The point is clear even if you have no idea what the neutron-proton coupling is.)

I went to Professor Bacher and told him about our success, and he said, “Yes, you come out and say that the neutron-proton coupling is V instead of T. Everybody used to think it was T. Where is the fundamental experiment that says it’s T. Why don’t you look at the early experiments and find out what was wrong with them?”

I went out and found the original article on the experiment that said the neutron-proton coupling is T, and I was shocked by something. I remembered reading that article once before…And I remembered, when I saw this article again, looking at that curve and thinking, “That doesn’t prove anything!”

You see, it depended on one or two points at the very edge of the range of the data, and there’s a principle that a point on the edge of the range of the data—the last point—isn’t very good.

Since then, I never pay attention to anything by “experts”. I calculate everything myself.

As my own experience shows, you don’t have to be a Nobel laureate to discover basic errors made by experts, nor do you have to be an amateur to make elementary mistakes. Another interesting aspect of these examples is that (as far as I’m aware) in neither were there any powerful political or corporate interests behind the errors. Experts are subject to groupthink and can be wrong based on near-zero evidence purely of their own accord. I suppose it’s mostly plain everyday negligence and sloppiness, no conspiracies needed.

It was happening decades ago. Indications are it’s no better today.

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