Brain Pickings

Cargo Cult Science: Richard Feynman’s 1974 Caltech Graduation Address on Integrity


“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself.”

As an aficionado of exceptional commencement speeches and of Richard Feynman — Nobel-winning physics icon, curiosity champion, graphic novel hero, bongo drummer, wager-maker, no ordinary genius, “The Great Explainer” — I was delighted to find out, via a passing mention in Dan Ariely’s new book on dishonesty, that Feynman addressed the graduating class at Caltech in 1974.

Titled The Cargo Cult Science, his exquisite speech uses the Cargo cult religious practices of Melanesian and Micronesian societies — an anthropological curiosity wherein, after WWII, pre-industrial native tribes would simulate and imitate the objects and behaviors they had observed in American and Japanese soldiers, in hopes of bringing back the material wealth soldiers had brought to them during the war — as a metaphor to make an articulate case for integrity over righteousness and sensationalism, a message all the timelier today as the fear of being wrong has swelled into an epidemic and media sensationalism continues to peddle pseudoscience to laymen ill-equipped or unwilling to apply the necessary critical thinking.

Though the talk was never recorded, you can read it in full here and hear it narrated below:

Feynman laments that the kind of integrity he talks about isn’t baked into the science education system — which hardly comes as a surprise, given it’s largely a system premised on certitude at all costs and not on the very admission of ignorance that fuels science:

This long history of learning how not to fool ourselves — of having utter scientific integrity — is, I’m sorry to say, something that we haven’t specifically included in any particular course that I know of. We just hope you’ve caught on by osmosis.

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the 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.

Feynman concludes beautifully, with his penchant for focusing the anecdotes of the specific into a masterful beam of the universal:

I have just one wish for you — the good luck to be somewhere where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have described, and where you do not feel forced by a need to maintain your position in the organization, or financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity. May you have that freedom.

Feynman, of course, can attest to the pride in a lifetime of never holding a “responsible position.”

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