“If it disagrees with experiment, it is wrong!” roars Richard Feynman in a video recently dusted off by NPR. The clip, on the foundations of science, is only 63 seconds — but its power is clear.
Feynman’s lesson is quietly anti-authoritarian, and it should be near the heart of anyone interested in radical social entrepreneurship.
When it comes to finding new truths in science, “it doesn’t make a difference how beautiful your guess is. It doesn’t make a difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is” declares Feynman.
If a theory fails the test — if we can falsify it — it is wrong. We can disagree about the results of a test, but no amount of bullying or money or political clout can stand in the way of the scientific enterprise.
Or at least that’s how it works in theory.
In sad truth, science — like anything else — is occasionally derailed by special interests and political agendas. Whether research is financed by government or private parties, everyone has their own agenda which sways the shape of scientific evolution.
For example, many premier private foundations financed research in eugenics in the early 20th century. Eugenics later became associated with Nazi ‘population control’ policies. But initially it was supported by Winston Churchill, John Maynard Keynes, George Bernard Shaw, Alexander Graham Bell, Teddy Roosevelt and other prominent figures from politics, business, and the intelligentsia.
In the Soviet Union, where the government held tight control over scientific funding, the charlatan Trofim Lysenko forced a disastrous agricultural policy on the nation. Even though Lysenko’s system was completely at odds with the modern world’s understanding of genetics, the government soon ruled any disagreement with him “fascism,” and “liquidated” dissenting voices. Lysenko’s name is now synonymous with the political hijacking of science.
So for science, the social system around it matters.
Indeed, philosopher of science W.W. Bartley wrote that how to build a system for good science is a main challenge of our time:
How can our lives and institutions be arranged so as to expose our positions, actions, opinions, beliefs, aims, conjectures, decisions, standards, frameworks, ways of life, policies, traditional practices, etc. — whether justifiable or not — to optimum examination, in order to counteract and eliminate as much error as possible.
Thus a general program is demanded: a program to develop methods and institutions that will contribute to the creation of such an environment. Such methods may be expected to be generally consistent with, but not restricted to or limited to, science.
In a world where everyone has an axe to grind, we need to find ways to be anti-authoritarians like Feynman and Bartley. This means pluralism: making sure that many, many voices from many different camps are working on discovering new things.
We need many dissenting voices to keep all of us in line — because we have no idea who will turn out to be right.
It also means making sure that no one voice or group can get control of science. This is the same as saying that we have to make sure no one voice or group can get control of the institutions that create a level playing-field for science’s advance.
At the start of his talk, Feynman says science is a process through which we search for “laws.” This has an interesting double-meaning.
He’s referring to laws of nature of course, but let’s take a step back and imagine that society is a scientific enterprise. Discovering good legal rules, good regulations, or good constitutions is hard — they are not ‘given’ to us. They evolved. They appeared through different experiments in different places at different times, by different people. They will continue to change.
Just like science, society evolves.
Many people today feel that our societies are stagnating, and they yearn for something more. Evolving our world means finding ways to put new ideas to the test. If they fail, following Feynman, they are wrong. But within those failures can be spectacular successes.
Do we feel that today new ideas for society are given a frontier to test themselves and a fair hearing? I doubt it. There are still too many monopolies in law, governance, education and community.
The challenge for radical social entrepreneurs is to build the social structures that allow new experiments to occur.
Disruptive innovation by entrepreneurs is scientific advance — it is the pure anti-authoritarianism of the scientific enterprise. And innovation can come from the unlikeliest of places.
Notice that Feynman also begins his chain of scientific progress with a “guess.”
This is the crucial first step (which his students misunderstand and laugh at). But the enterprise of science needs bold visionaries willing to set their reputations and time on hunches and hypotheses.
So does the enterprise of society.
Democracy was first someone’s ‘guess.’ Imagine where we could go next if we made room for new experiments in society.