50 years later, and more relevant than ever.
FIONA MACDONALD 14 APR 2016
In this fast-paced world of social media news, it can be exhausting to constantly have to figure out which of the legit-sounding headlines popping up in your newsfeed are proper science, and which are little more than pseudoscience bilge.
To make matters more complicated, anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers are in the habit of using scientific terms to get people on side, and, despite all our skeptical thinking, researchers have shown that it’s incredibly easy for humans to fall for what they call ‘pseudo-profound bullsh*t’ – for example, Deepak Chopra quotes that sound smart, but, when you get down to it, actually mean nothing at all. Like: “Wellbeing requires exploration. To traverse the mission is to become one with it.”
But as challenging as it is, it’s just as important as ever to be able to sort fact from fiction these days.
So how do you know what’s real and what’s not without an advanced degree in science? Back in 1966, theoretical physicist Richard Feynman came up with a surprisingly simple technique, that today is more relevant than ever.
It turns out, all you need to do when you read or hear something that sounds smart, is try to translate it back into ordinary language – or better yet, have the person explain it for you – without using any scientific jargon or terms, and see if it still makes sense.
For example, saying that immunisation causes autism because “simultaneous administration of multiple vaccines overwhelms or weakens the immune system” might sound pretty impressive. But can you explain in lay terms what that means? Or how injecting a piece of dead virus into someone – so that their body can recognise it and attack it if it ever meets a live version – can bring about a broad spectrum of behavioural changes? No? Didn’t think so.
Fifty years ago, Feynman wasn’t talking about climate change denial or anti-vaxxers, but rather science education. Giving a speech at the US National Science Teachers Association back in 1996, he was trying to impart on the educators of tomorrow the difference between knowing the name for something, and truly understanding it.
He told them about at a first-grade science book he’d seen, which started by showing students images of things like a wind-up toy dog, a real dog, and a motorbike, and asked the students: “What makes it move?”
That could be a pretty interesting way to start a discussion about the basics of science, but instead the answer in the teacher’s edition of the book, noted Feynman, was simply, “Energy makes it move”, for each option.
“Now, energy is a very subtle concept,” said Feynman. “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.’)”
Instead, he suggested that teachers should answer the question the way an ordinary human with no scientific knowledge would, rather than falling back on a complex term – for example, explaining that a toy dog moves because you wind up the spring, which then tries to unwind and pushes the gear around.
And then he offered some of the best advice in the history of science communication:
“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.”
Science education aside, Feynman’s advice is equally useful when it comes to testing out someone else’s claims, as Simon Oxenhman over at BigThink explains:
“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 Feynman, ‘It is possible to follow form and call it science, but that is pseudoscience.'”
It’s an incredibly simple concept, and for those of us in science communication it’s something that’s been drilled in for years. But when you take it out into the real world, the technique of simply trying to rephrase something in simple English to see if a) it makes sense, and b) you understand it, can be a surprisingly powerful tool for cutting through the bullsh*t. We highly recommend you give it a go.
And just in case you were wondering how strictly Feynman followed his own advice, just watch this interview filmed almost 20 years later. In it, Feynman refuses to explain how magnets work to a BBC journalist because it’s impossible for him to describe in terms that the interviewer would be familiar with. That’s commitment to that no-jargon life. Respect.
Read these next:
All of Richard Feynman’s physics lectures are now available free online
Read Roald Dahl’s powerful letter to parents about vaccination from 1988
Watch: Richard Feynman on why he can’t tell you how magnets work