The importance of discussion

Feynman on the importance of discussion

Advertisements

While I was on holiday, I immersed myself a bit more in the Feynman universe. And I must say – the combination of simmering French sun, lazy poolside-lounging and Feynman’s scientific and philosophical subjects worked surprisingly well. The result was like a tasty cocktail – the kind that gives you a light buzz in the head and that leaves you wanting for more.

Consuming too much of it would have probably given me a nasty headache too, but that didn’t really happen. The only lasting thing I got out of it was the desire to write some of the stuff down before I forget. So here goes…

In his 1964 lecture called “The Role of Scientific Culture in Modern Society”, Feynman states:

 “I believe that we must attack these things in which we do not believe.”

“Not attack by the method of cutting off the heads of the people, but attack in the sense of discuss. I believe that we should demand that people try in their own minds to obtain for themselves a more consistent picture of their own world; that they not permit themselves the luxury of having their brain cut in four pieces or two pieces even, and on one side they believe this and on the other side they believe that, but never try to compare the two points of view. Because we have learned that, by trying to put the points of view that we have in our head together and comparing one to the other, we make some progress in understanding and in appreciating where we are and what we are. And I believe that science has remained irrelevant because we wait until somebody asks us questions or until we are invited to give a speech on Einstein’s theory to people who don’t understand Newtonian mechanics, but we never are invited to give an attack on faith healing or astrology–on what is the scientific view of astrology today.”

“I think that we must mainly write some articles. Now what would happen? The person who believes in astrology will have to learn some astronomy. The person who believes in faith healing will have to learn some medicine, because of the arguments going back and forth; and some biology. In other words, it will be necessary that science becomes relevant. The remark which I read somewhere, that science is all right so long as it doesn’t attack religion, was the clue that I needed to understand the problem. As long as it doesn’t attack religion it need not be paid attention to and nobody has to learn anything. So it can be cut off from modern society except for its applications, and thus be isolated. And then we have this terrible struggle to explain things to people who have no reason to want to know. But if they want to defend their own points of view, they will have to learn what yours is a little bit. So I suggest, maybe incorrectly and perhaps wrongly, that we are too polite.”

It strikes me how relevant this out-of-context quote still is after almost fifty years.

We cannot overestimate the importance of a critical mindset. Testers may need that even more than anybody else. Sometimes we just need to attack common beliefs that have become axioms in a way. I think it was Mark Twain who once said “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” 

So, we need more discussions in our line of work – they’re a surefire way to advancing the testing craft. True, there’s plenty of discussions and controversies within testing already – the different schools of testing come to mind.  But what I feel lacking sometimes, is a desire to understand where the “other side” is coming from. Why are they thinking the way they think? What are their beliefs and motives? Can we prove their beliefs to be false?

I think I’ll make this my personal mantra:

  • Attack, but don’t attack what you don’t understand
  • Be credible
  • Be reasonable