Feynman’s Advice For Becoming a Scientific Skeptic

Why doubt and skepticism are important for discovery

Sunny Labh

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Richard Feynman at Caltech, 1986. Image Source: Caltech Yearbook. Commons Image.

There’s no doubt that Richard Feynman is one of the most accomplished theoretical physicists of all time. But he was much more than just that. His methods of teaching and learning were unconventional and he truly believed in the power of scientific skepticism and doubt and uncertainty. In order for anyone to make progress in science or scientific domains, he says, uncertainty is extremely important. This isn’t my first piece about the physics legend. In my previous articles, I shared Feynman’s ideologies about God and religion. If you haven’t read that piece yet you can read it here,

In this article, however, I shall share what the scientific Zeus thought about the importance of doubt, and uncertainty. Most of the quotations mentioned in this piece have been extracted from his autobiography ‘Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman!’ and his interviews the reference to which shall be mentioned alongside each.

In a public address at the National Academy of Sciences in 1955, Feynman stated

“The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance, I think. When a scientist doesn’t know the answer to a problem, he is ignorant. When he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And when he is pretty darn sure of what the result is going to be, he is still in some doubt. We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress we must recognize our ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty — some most unsure, some nearly sure, but none absolutely certain.”

The statement alone showcases the importance of doubt and uncertainty in scientific inquiry and this, evidently, holds true not just for scientists but for everyone. As human beings, our very purpose of existence, I believe, is to try and understand the world around us and inside us. In…

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Sunny Labh

Science writer and communicator majoring in Quantum Mechanics. Curator of @PhysInHistory on twitter. Twitter: @thePiggsBoson