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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.”


Ray Bradbury on Space, Education, and Our Obligation to Future Generations: A Rare 2003 Interview

“Anything that puts a sense of the miraculous in you… Anything that makes you feel alive is good.”

After this morning’s remembrance of Ray Bradbury through 11 of his most memorable quotes, here comes a rare archival gem: On August 22, 2003, SCVTV news man Leon Worden conducted a short but wide-ranging interview with the beloved author, in which he discusses such timely subjects as future of space exploration, what’s wrong with the education system, and where technology is taking us, exploring ideas as broad and abstract as the possibility of alien life and as specific and concrete as tackling the 40,000 highway deaths that take place every year.

The interview is now available online, mashed up with images from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory — highlights below.

In commenting on the cultural impact of mainstream media, Bradbury echoes David Foster Wallace’s lament:

Maybe we can get rid of a lot of lousy TV, I hope. It can look better if we can destroy most bad TV shows and most bad movies, really making more quality movies. And maybe we’ll redo our educational system and begin to teach reading and writing again. We’re not doing it now, and until we do, we’re going to be a stupid race.

But, unlike Wallace, Bradbury doesn’t believe the medium is the problem and instead makes a case for filling it with more substantial messages:

Anything except what’s on there! I watch the Turner Broadcast night after night — the old movies are better, no matter how dumb they are, they’re better what we’re doing now… We have to have more documentaries, more histories of the various countries of the world, more films on the miracles of life under the sea… when you look at the varieties of life that are under the ocean… Anything that puts a sense of the miraculous in you, that we’re living in a very strange element in this time, and we should appreciate the fact that we’re alive. Anything that makes you feel alive is good.

When asked about our obligation is in terms of passing our legacy along to future generations, Bradbury gives an answer that nods to combinatorial creativity and the idea that “you are a mashup of what you let into your life”:

If you don’t read or write, you can’t be educated, you can’t care about anything — you’ve gotta put something in people’s heads so the metaphors bounce around and collide with each other and make new metaphors. That’s the success I’ve had of daring to put different metaphors together, mashing their heads together, saying, ‘Oh my god, I didn’t think of that — how wonderful!’


Dorothy Parker Obituary, 1967

Treasure-hunting for literary history gems in second-hand books.

On her 70th birthday, Dorothy Parker — prolific poet, celebrated satirist, keen critic, astute observer of literary culture — noted wryly:

If I had any decency, I’d be dead. Most of my friends already are.

Less than four years later, on June 7, 1967, she suffered a heart attack in her New York City hotel suite and died. The following day, The Kansas City Times published the following obituary, which my friend Wendy found tucked inside the pages of an old copy of Enough Rope, Parker’s first volume of poetry — a living testament to the wonders tucked inside second-hand books.

Once, reviewing a performance of Katherine Hepburn on Broadway, Miss Parker wrote: ‘She ran the gamut of emotions from A to B.’

For a proper celebration of Parker’s genius, treat yourself to the Penguin Classic The Portable Dorothy Parker, edited by Parker biographer Marion Meade.


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