Saturday, September 23, 2006
"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are theThat was Richard Feynman commenting on his approach to science, and I came across it again this week while pondering two important events – our Party Conference and my son going up to University today to study theoretical physics. I really hope that he acquires this kind of scientific discipline, and that when he sees me operating politically he can still respect me.
easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you've
not fooled yourself, it's easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be
honest in a conventional way after that."
So are there things we can think about in this party on how to behave and use evidence and put forwards policies?
Perhaps from Peter Medawar in his classic book ‘Advice to a Young Scientist’ which includes this:
"I cannot give any scientist of any age better advice than this: the intensityMany of us are feeling enthusiastic about our green approach to economics and have high expectations of success. But the strength of our feelings is not the criteria for success. We have done something quite radical, with precise predictions, and we need to find ways of testing our policies against actual developments. Not ‘targets’, God forbid we should fall into the New Labour target trap. We need to find a strategy for implementation and try to measure real results. And have the discipline to learn from reality.
of the conviction that a hypothesis is true has no bearing on whether it is true
or not. The importance of the strength of our conviction is only to provide a
proportionally strong incentive to find out if the hypothesis will stand up to
As Feynman described the central discipline of science, we learn by making guesses about the real world and then doing hard tests to try to prove and disprove our guess. And what then?
" If it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. In that simple statement is the
key to science. It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is. It
does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his
name is - if it disagrees with experiment it is wrong."
Perhaps some politicians should look closely at what made Feynman tick.
I will have another think later about integrity in politics, about the horrors of target culture, about the need to find the weaknesses as well as the strengths in any policy we put forwards, about the horrible example of Labour’s failed mass IT projects and how this should give us resolve and caution in our policy development and implementation.
But just for now, and my mind wandering back to my son two more threads. One from Feynman again, on what he learned form his mother
"She taught me that the highest forms of understanding that we can achieve are
laughter and human compassion."
And something completely different (though with Feynman you never know)… from the Tau Te Ching
I hope my son too finds that the greatest understanding he finds are in laughter and human compassion ,and that he stays as he is, a disciple of life. And I hope we all can help build a world a little better suited to laughter, compassion and life. That, with hesitant humility, is what I hope for from my politics anyway.
Living plants are flexible,
In death, they become dry and brittle.
Therefore, stubborn people are disciples of death,
but flexible people are disciples of life.