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June 28th 2017 print

Tony Thomas

Surely You’re Crying, Mr Feynman

Back in 1974, the US physicist and polymath warned graduating students of 'cargo cult science' and the careerist urge to confirm the flawed orthodoxy of earlier and inaccurate results. Climate "science" was then in its infancy but the trajectory of its corruption has confirmed all his worst fears

feynmanThe trouble with mainstream climate scientists is that they’re third-rate scientists, and the reason they’re third-rate is that they’re dishonest. My authority for this statement is physicist Richard Feynman (pictured), who has been dead for 29 years but was ranked by  his peers as one of the ten greatest  physicists of all time. Feynman set out the parameters for honest science in general, and I’ve never yet seen a mainstream climate scientist live up to Feynman’s honesty test.

In 2015 I was transiting through Los Angeles airport and killing time in a bookshop.  I bought Feynman’s paperback   Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman! because it seemed unusual for physicists to take pride in being funny.

In the book’s first essay he tells how, as a small kid, he earned pocket-money repairing people’s radios. A customer would tell him about a fault, and that would be enough to diagnose the problem without even turning on the set.

The book’s final essay – in between there’s wonderful entertainment – is called “Cargo Cult Science”. It’s  the commencement address he gave to freshers at Caltech in 1974. The original cargo cults, as you probably know, involved post-war tribesmen in PNG building mock airstrips and control towers in the hope that this would attract US cargo planes to again deliver their cargoes of desirable goods. “They follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land,” Feynman told the students. He went on to talk about what is missing in bad science – honesty.

It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty—a kind of leaning over backwards.  For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid—not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked—to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

“Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them.  You must do the best you can—if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong—to explain it.  If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it.  There is also a more subtle problem.  When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.

“In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.

“We’ve learned from experience that the truth will out.  Other experimenters will repeat your experiment and find out whether you were wrong or right. [Climate science is intrinsically not experimental but its modelling can now be checked against reality].  Nature’s phenomena will agree or they’ll disagree with your theory.  And, although you may gain some temporary fame and excitement, you will not gain a good reputation as a scientist if you haven’t tried to be very careful in this kind of work.  And it’s this type of integrity, this kind of care not to fool yourself, that is missing to a large extent in much of the research in Cargo Cult Science.

“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.

“I would like to add something that’s not essential to the science, but something I kind of believe, which is that you should not fool the layman when you’re talking as a scientist…I’m talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you’re maybe wrong, that you ought to do when acting as a scientist.  And this is our responsibility as scientists, certainly to other scientists, and I think to laymen.

“For example, I was a little surprised when I was talking to a friend who was going to go on the radio.  He does work on cosmology and astronomy, and he wondered how he would explain what the applications of this work were.  ‘Well,’ I said, ‘there aren’t any.’  He said, ‘Yes, but then we won’t get support for more research of this kind.’  I think that’s kind of dishonest.  If you’re representing yourself as a scientist, then you should explain to the layman what you’re doing—and if they don’t want to support you under those circumstances, then that’s their decision.

“One example of the principle is this: If you’ve made up your mind to test a theory, or you want to explain some idea, you should always decide to publish it whichever way it comes out.  If we only publish results of a certain kind, we can make the argument look good.  We must publish both kinds of result.

“I say that’s also important in giving certain types of government advice. Supposing a senator asked you for advice about whether drilling a hole should be done in his state; and you decide it would be better in some other state.  If you don’t publish such a result, it seems to me you’re not giving scientific advice.  You’re being used.  If your answer happens to come out in the direction the government or the politicians like, they can use it as an argument in their favor; if it comes out the other way, they don’t publish it at all.  That’s not giving scientific advice.

“So I wish to 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. [The following para is in the original but not in the book] May I also give you one last bit of advice: Never say that you’ll give a talk unless you know clearly what you’re going to talk about and more or less what you’re going to say.”

What is fascinating about his common-sense tenets of scientific honesty is that today they are forgotten, ignored, corrupted and trampled upon by supposed scientists  in all fields playing ‘publish or perish’ and ‘get that grant’.  The climate scientists are particularly bad because the stakes in grants, influence and reputation are now so high. When the Climate Council’s CEO Amanda McKenzie talks about “carbon pollution”, why don’t the scientists on her board (Flannery, Hughes, Steffen, Bambrick) correct her and say carbon dioxide (not “carbon”) is  a plant food essential to life on earth, not “pollution”?  That’s what Feynman surely would want.

There must now be tens of thousands of peer reviewed mainstream studies relying on the output of temperature computer-modelling for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Since the 5th IPCC report of 2013, each such study, on Feynman’s honesty test, should include in the preamble that the   5th report noted [1] that 111 of 114 such model runs over-estimated actual temperatures from 1998-2012  — and they’re still over-estimating for 2012-2016, as demonstrated by John Christy’s satellite graphs provide in Congressional testimony last March.

A minor negative example: a month ago ABC radio, print and TV was running hot with “coastal koala extinction” stories. Koalas are good talent and we all love these cute little beasties. We learn that, according to the most conservative climate modelling, seas will rise lots and lots between now and 2067 and 2117,  and this will kill the gum trees that many koala populations  feed on – putting them on  “a steady downward run to extinction”.

The tale emanates from research done at the Port Macquarie City Council. It doesn’t seem to have made the published science literature but there is an account of it at a national koala conference at Port Macquarie last month. This account makes no mention of the damning 111/114 fail rate of the main IPCC climate models, and thus it violates Feynman’s integrity test.[2]

Another great Feynman-test fail   is all this science-y stuff about hottest year ever. Surface based records (that have been ruthlessly adjusted by lowering the early-year temperature data) may show recent hottest years, but the 38-year satellite records don’t – at best the 2016 peak was within the margin of error relative to 2015. How can any honest scientist (on Feynman’s definition) fail to mention the awkward satellite data when assessing hottest years? There was even the case in 2015 where NASA put out a press release saying that 2014 was the hottest year since 1880. But within days it had to own up that because of data margins of error, there was only a 38% chance that its ‘hottest year’ tale was valid. Would Feynman say that NASA has scientific integrity? No, I don’t think so.[3]

In my reading on climate over the past decade,  I’ve never seen Feynman’s prescription about honest science referred to in mainstream climate literature. It’s easy to imagine why.

Tony Thomas’s book of essays, That’s Debatable  – 60 years in print is available here

[1] Chapter 9, text box 9.2, page 769. And why was this crucial information not included in the all-important Summary for Policy-Makers?

[2] Another Feynman-style koala check not mentioned would be the nearest tide gauges, to see how much these seas have risen to date. Port Macquarie gauges only go back 30 years and show a 7.8cm rise, i.e. if extrapolated, about one foot per century. Fort Denison in Sydney Harbor shows a mere 6.5cm per century rise based on 128 years of data.

[3] On checking, I find he’d already written off NASA management as scientific frauds.  “NASA managers claimed that there was a 1 in 100,000 chance of a catastrophic failure aboard the [Challenger] shuttle, but Feynman discovered that NASA’s own engineers estimated the chance of a catastrophe at closer to 1 in 200. He concluded that NASA management’s estimate of the reliability of the space shuttle was unrealistic, and he was particularly angered that NASA used it to recruit Christa McAuliffe [lost in the explosion] into the Teacher-in-Space program. He warned in his appendix to the commission’s report (which was included only after he threatened not to sign the report), “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”

Comments [19]

  1. AlanIO says:

    Yes Mr Thomas, Mr Feynman was a great credit to humanity. His simple explanation to the booster ‘O-ring’ failure in Space Shuttle disaster is a testament to his worth. AlanIO

  2. Bill Martin says:

    Since times immemorial, politicians always had the reputation of dubious honesty. In stark contrast, scientists enjoyed popular respect earned by their scrupulous integrity. Those distinctions in both cases are increasingly blurred, not on account of politicians emulating the sterling practices of scientists of previous generations but because scientists and politicians are now allied practicing the “art” of duping the public to advance their own interests.

  3. pabloAU says:

    Immortal thoughts of Prof. Feynman, what would we do without him? Whenever I hear “the science is settled” he comes to my head. Have some 5 or 6 such paperbacks of his to read. “The meaning of it all”, “The pleasure of finding things”- absolutely vital science reading!
    N.B. Another settled science thought for me is Copernicus, in his time (and long after!) sneered at by (protestant mostly in this case) scientists that “certain Catholic” thinks it is the Earth going around the Sun.
    But then orbits were not circles but ellipses…. Science is a living thing in many ways.

  4. Lawrie Ayres says:

    Our own BoM has been homogenising, adjusting and extrapolating temperature records to achieve the global warming they apparently are being paid to find. Sites that have cooled over the past decades are shown to have warmed; Mt Isa is one such site as is Rutherglen. When readers of the Jo Nova blog successfully petitioned the Commonwealth Auditor General to audit the BoM’s records the BoM within days changed their system. Unfortunately for the BoM it’s new system showed minimum temps hotter than maximum on particular days. It was obvious they were badly spooked. They were saved by Greg Hunt who as Environment Minister stopped any investigation claiming it could destroy the public’s faith in the BoM. Well duh we had already lost faith but we were deniers so didn’t count. Besides if it was shown the BoM had fiddled the data the governments RET would make even less sense if that were possible.

    • ianl says:

      As a particularly poignant piece of irony, the NZ BoM equivalent was caught completely with its’ pants down, admitting in a Court of Law that it had indeed been fiddling the books, and fiddling with such inept profusion that it now had absolutely no idea of any accurate temperature history. The irony ? The Aus BoM then hastened to show the NZ group how keep control and keep the details of that hidden from public view.

  5. Tricone says:

    The logical person sees “HOTTEST DAY IN 50 YEARS!” and calmly thinks, “Hmm. So it was hotter in 1967?”

    Chicken Little thinks, “OMG HOTTEST DAY!”

  6. mags of Queensland says:

    You only have to look at the credentials of the ministers of the climate change religion to know that it is the biggest scam ever perpetrated on the public in history. High priest Flannery is a paleontologist; our chief scientist’s area is engineering. Those who have the academic qualifications to discuss climate seem to be firmly in the opposing camp to those who screech the loudest. Funny that.

  7. Ian MacDougall says:

    In the fields of science, we always have to keep the facts of Nature as the centrepiece, and we develop our theoretical perspectives from there. In religion and politics, we start from what we want to believe, and want others to believe, based on whatever sacred texts, and then look for evidence that supports that view. Authority thus assumes a central position, while in science as the astronomer Carl Sagan was inclined to emphasise, appeals to authority are worthless. Untimately, the test of any proposition purporting to be scientific is how well it explains any of the phenomena of Nature. Inevitably therefore, Nature always speaks and bats last.
    On the recent issue of CFCs as used in refrigeration, and the threat they allegedly posed to the Ozone Layer: we were all alerted to it by certain chemists, there was no big issue. The risks to the Biosphere were too great to allow argument over the pros and cons to be very protracted, and the CFCs were pretty soon enough banned worldwide under the Montreal Protocol of 1989. The ‘allegedly’ was never fully tested by what we might call a ‘field trial’: continuing to release them into the atmosphere and waiting to see what happened: particularly whether or not the Biosphere was fried in ultraviolet radiation and all vulnerable life destroyed.
    CO2 when added to the air increases the planet’s heat-trapping abilities. If the glaciers were not melting and the seas were not rising, I would incline to agree that the AGW hypothesis is probably wrong. The economic implications of that hypothesis are however quite profound, particularly for Australia, which derives so much of its export income from selling coal to the world. This is also further complicated by the fact that the Australian coal deposits are no longer public property, the rights to mine and on-sell them having been sold by the states to private interests, we can call for brevity the Coal Miners. These people and those who speak for them understandably play down or deny outright any global risks from their activities, illustrating the dictum of that black slave befriended by Mark Twain: you tell me how a man gets his corn pone, and I’ll tell you what his opinions is. Or as Karl Marx put it: “It is not consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”
    If I was in the coal business and ethically challenged, I would be operating on the principle aim of coal lobby: get the money ASAP. Throw whatever smokescreen necessary over any problem. I would also play up the alleged venality of opponents of fossil carbon, and play down the inevitable profit hunger of certain major players in the coal business. Also, I would attack renewables as often as possible, ignoring the irony of any accusation I might make of venality or ‘grant-hunger’ on the part of climate scientists; even though those same renewables make our one-off unrenewable coal deposits last longer.
    Strangely, that seems to be what is going on round here.

    • Jody says:

      Ian, I live in a prosperous area of the lower Hunter valley surrounded by ‘ethically challenged’ geologists, coal miners, ancillary business owners, home builders, developers and small business in general. Our entire area has forged ahead because of coal and daily I hear large trains thundering through East Maitland bearing their black, dusty loads. Stockland is building a $400M extension to Green Hills shopping centre and we had the Hunter Freeway opened 3 years ago. We also look forward to another public hospital. As I wrote this a bulldozer works tirelessly on the hill opposite our housing estate preparing another 100 or so housing lots.

      That’s the price, I suppose, of having no morality or conscience. We are willing participants in the benefits.

    • [email protected] says:

      Ian, CO2 is a MINOR greenhouse gas. CO2 is approximately only 3% of the greenhouse gas in the atmosphere and is responsible for about 5% of the known ‘greenhouse’ effect. Water vapour is main the greenhouse gas in the atmosphere [about 97%] and is responsible for about 95% of the known greenhouse temperature effects. It’s what makes the world liveable. Without water vapour the world would be at about minus 15 degrees C and the world would be a dead ice-ball.
      One half of the ‘heat trapping’ effects of CO2 occurs in the fist 20pppm, the heat trapping ability of CO2 does NOT rise in linear terms, it rises logorhythmically, i.e. each doubling of CO2 raises the temperature by roughly between 1 and 1.2 degrees C. This has been known by REAL scientists for over a century. To account for observed rises [in the late 70's and early 80's] above this known theoretical range, POLITICISED scientists invented their [in]famous ‘climate sensitivity’ theory. This theory proposes that the extra CO2 increases the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere thus indirectly ‘multiplying’ its greenhouse effects.
      There has NOT been one published paper that proves/verifies this theory using observed results from satellites or ‘un-homogenised’/’unadjusted’ ground observations. That is why all the computer models have exaggerated their predictions between 1.3 to 3.4 times actual observed results. The whole catastrophic AGW scenario can be explained in the words of the leftist academic philosopher Zizek – forget about reality if you have a really good theory.

      PS, Ian all of my facts above can be verified by a simple GOGGLE search. I don’t have the time or the space here to provide all the links.

      • Ian MacDougall says:


        There has NOT been one published paper that proves/verifies this theory using observed results from satellites or ‘un-homogenised’/’unadjusted’ ground observations.

        Perhaps true. But then again, perhaps not. Depends I suppose on how you define the problem, acceptable evidence, and how you define ‘un-homogenised’/’unadjusted’ I suppose.
        However, rising CO2 concentration in the atmosphere, melting glaciers worldwide and (consequently) steadily rising sea levels are evidence consistent if not blatantly supporting the AGW hypothesis. As is the planet Venus: hottest surface by far in the Solar System: hotter than that of Mercury, which is closest planet to the Sun. And an atmosphere around 97% CO2.
        Those are facts.
        And remember what Charles Darwin said:
        “I have steadily endeavoured to keep my mind free so as to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved (and I cannot resist forming one on every subject), as soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it.”


        • [email protected] says:

          Ian, your Venus ‘red herring’ is just plain crap. Venus has about 220,000 times as much carbon dioxide in its atmosphere as does Earth. Venus is a very different planet. Venus has 93x as much atmosphere as Earth, and it is almost 100% CO2. The CO2 concentration in our comparatively thin atmosphere is only 0.04%.
          The fact that the world has got slightly hotter and that the sea levels have risen by a minuscule, almost immeasurable amount since the last mini-ice-age is also irrelevant and has very little to almost nothing to do with the slight amount of CO2 humans have put into the atmosphere. The biggest effect that our tiny CO2 contributions to the atmosphere have had is that the world has got noticeably greener and that crop production has increased. This increase in production has come from using LESS land and LESS water than previously. both POSITIVE effects to any person who thinks that humans have a valid place on earth.

          • Ian MacDougall says:

            CO2 is a proven heat-trapping gas, and Venus has a hotter surface than that of Mercury. This shows that our slight but steadily rising concentration of atmospheric CO2 has the capacity to heat the whole atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere, though not to a higher surface temperature than that of Venus. It was data from Venus that started Jim Hansen of NASA thinking about the Greenhouse Effect as it might apply to Earth.
            But wait: there’s more!
            The theory of automatic and constant readjustment in nature (TACRN) says that Nature is constantly adjusting her laws to accommodate the needs of the major players in the human economy. Of particular concern to her are the needy coal magnates: those individuals who have successfully enclosed what was originally a common resource and made it their own fountain of continuous revenue.
            TACRN is all my own modest work. I hit upon it only last Tuesday.
            Or was it Monday?

  8. Keith Kennelly says:


    The behaviour you say you would adopt if you were a harvester if the coal resource shows an unethical disposition.

    Why would you not then carry the same disposition into your belief in climate warming?

  9. Keith Kennelly says:


    Here is a lesson in comprehension, for it appears you need one.

    I was commenting on Ian’s proposed behaviour and it’s dubious lack of ethics.

    I was not attacking him personally or ‘playing the man’.
    There in lies a significant difference.

    Clear or beyond your ability?

  10. Keith Kennelly says:

    Obviously the latter.

  11. [email protected] says:

    Tony, you’ve encouraged me to read Feynman: I’ve been bugged for years about what passes as ‘Indigenous research’, which makes a fetish of never looking for any data that conflicts with a particular hypothesis – of stating an hypothesis, then finding anything which just might support it, and claiming success. Sort of medieval ‘research’. Nice to see that approach properly pilloried.