The search for truth – Richard Feynman and the Challenger disaster

'Can't block it out' - The search for truth
‘Can’t block it out’ – The search for truth

On Monday 18 March BBC 2 broadcast a riveting docu-drama entitled The Challenger. It was a factual drama about the famous scientist Richard Feynman and his search for truth in the wake of the NASA Challenger disaster. When Challenger exploded 73 seconds into its flight on the morning of 28 January 1986, it represented one of the most tragic events in the history of American spaceflight. A Presidential Commission was rapidly convened to explore what had gone wrong, but with the vast complexity of the space shuttle and so many vested interests involved in the investigation, discovering the truth looked as if it was going to be an impossible challenge. However, against the background of a deeply flawed inquiry process, Feyman’s relentless investigation eventually helped to uncover the first cause of the disaster. The film is well-worth seeing. It goes some way towards demonstrating what a search for the truth actually entails: it shows, for example, how Feyman’s particular quest was severely impeded by sectional interests, all of whom had something to lose if the truth were to be uncovered. But the film also reflects Feyman’s distinction between the nature of proper science and phoney or what he called ‘cargo cult science’. He had outlined such a distinction in a famous address given to students at Caltech in 1974.

I’ve picked out some notes from Feynman’s address. Each note is important in its own right but, given the extraordinary proliferation of psychology degrees, I think the third note warrants particularly close attention. It’s also a great story.

1.  “There is one feature I notice that is generally missing in “cargo cult science.” 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.”

2. “We’ve learned from experience that the truth will come out. Other experimenters will repeat your experiment and find out whether you were wrong or right. 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.”

3. “All experiments in psychology are not of this [cargo cult] type, however. For example there have been many experiments running rats through all kinds of mazes, and so on — with little clear result. But in 1937 a man named Young did a very interesting one. He had a long corridor with doors all along one side where the rats came in, and doors along the other side where the food was. He wanted to see if he could train rats to go to the third door down from wherever he started them off. No. The rats went immediately to the door where the food had been the time before.

The question was, how did the rats know, because the corridor was so beautifully built and so uniform, that this was the same door as before? Obviously there was something about the door that was different from the other doors. So he painted the doors very carefully, arranging the textures on the faces of the doors exactly the same. Still the rats could tell. Then he thought maybe they were smelling the food, so he used chemicals to change the smell after each run. Still the rats could tell. Then he realized the rats might be able to tell by seeing the lights and the arrangement in the laboratory like any commonsense person. So he covered the corridor, and still the rats could tell.

He finally found that they could tell by the way the floor sounded when they ran over it. And he could only fix that by putting his corridor in sand. So he covered one after another of all possible clues and finally was able to fool the rats so that they had to learn to go to the third door. If he relaxed any of his conditions, the rats could tell.

Now, from a scientific standpoint that is an A-number-one experiment. That is the experiment that makes rat-running experiments sensible, because it uncovers the clues that the rat is really using — not what you think it’s using. And that is the experiment that tells exactly what conditions you have to use in order to be careful and control everything in an experiment with rat-running.

I looked into the subsequent history of this research. The next experiment, and the one after that, never referred to Mr. Young. They never used any of his criteria of putting the corridor on sand, or of being very careful. They just went right on running rats in the same old way, and paid no attention to the great discoveries of Mr. Young, and his papers are not referred to, because he didn’t discover anything about rats. In fact, he discovered all the things you have to do to discover something about rats. But not paying attention to experiments like that is a characteristic of cargo cult science.”

From: Feyman, R. “Cargo Cult Science”, adapted from a commencement address given at Caltech in 1974

The search for truth – and the shadow of Nietzsche

'Only the sky knows' - the search for truth
‘Only the sky knows’ – the search for truth

One of the most significant moments in my professional career occurred when public service organisations in the UK began to adopt a ‘quality of service’ philosophy. This philosophy was a departure from the traditional ideas of ‘service’ – because it was concerned to address some absolutely basic issues – such as making best use of resources, demonstrating high professionals standards, achieving best value, and insisting upon genuine accountability and transparency. It meant that meeting the needs of the client and serving the wider interests of the public should be paramount – and should shape the conduct of everyone working in the public sector.

The leadership and organisation-development college in which I worked was chosen as the site upon which to launch the new approach – an approach that was to underpin service delivery; in 1992 a major seminar (lasting for three days) outlined the principles and different aspects of the new strategic emphasis. In fact, I think it was really more than a strategic emphasis: it was supposed to be a re-configuration of the cultural DNA that would govern the public sector: public service professionals were now supposed to live and breathe the ethos of ‘quality of service’.

A part of the new philosophy identified the cognitive framework (the mind-set) that should manifest itself in working practices if public-sector organisations were to be trusted. In the case of the UK’s police, trust was contingent on an unswerving commitment to a ‘search for the truth.’ In fact, one of the key papers presented at the seminar was entitled ‘Trust in the police – the search for truth.

I particularly liked the idea of grounding the practice of policing in a search for truth. Apart from its obvious value in the pursuit of justice it seemed to me that if an organisation were to be committed to a ‘search for truth’ then two things immediately followed: First, decision-making (as well as policy and strategy) would stand more chance of being based on evidence rather than on traditional practices, custom, convention or prejudice. Second, the search for truth would enable the organisations’ members to resist corruption or sectional interest. More generally, they would have the chance to confront mediocrity and slovenliness: they would have a mandate to seek out the facts and follow the best (and valid) arguments rather than collude with the conveniences of the moment.

In fact, for the next few years most of my teaching and lecturing was directly or indirectly concerned with the ‘quality of service’ philosophy – and especially the ethical development of police leaders and managers. But, oddly enough, a commitment to ensuring that my practice reflected a search for truth proved to be fairly disastrous.  It was disastrous because a ‘search for truth’ is always closely associated with a critical spirit – with uncertainty and doubt. And it is also associated with a certain independence of thought, a tendency to ask questions and an inclination to voice dissent. These are not qualities that are always valued in organisations – especially those organisations (like mine) that were subject to regime change. The search for truth is difficult and painstaking. It takes time and it often results in less rather than more certainty. My feeling is that people who search for the truth become infused with a sense of the hypothetical and a deep sense of contingency. In short, everything could be otherwise.

SO, I did not do well when it came to ‘standing up’ for my part of the organisation*. And this was largely because I was never as sure as I might have been that what we were doing was as effective as it should be. The programme I ran was remarkable in that it gave considerable time and space for future police leaders to explore their value priorities and self-conceptions. It enabled them to uncover group dynamics and to become full-blown self-managed learners. But did it make any difference to their practice? I do not know. I could have pretended otherwise. I could have pretended that I had convincing data to demonstrate how effective the programme actually was. But, whenever I tried to do anything like that (to cover each base) I felt completely exhausted and demoralised. So, in the end, I was not able to protect the integrity of the project for which I was responsible.

Overall, I think that it’s very difficult to engage in a ‘search for truth’ because any such search will sooner or later collide with the power structures and micro-political relations that are part of an organisation’s reality. I suppose that the moral of this tale is: Read Nietzsche. I say this because Nietzsche underlined the fact that we are ‘human all too human‘…

*The particular programme that I was directing was built upon a rigorous theory of ‘development’. It had little if anything to do with conventional approaches to training. I am still not sure that the theory and practice upon which it was based was ever properly appreciated by the majority of people who made judgements about it.

Photography – and more photography

A photograph of a photograph of Rue de L'eglise, Nantes, France
A photograph of a photograph of Rue de L’eglise, Nantes, France

“We have gone from a situation where too little photography was exhibited to one where there is too much – and that which is exhibited is often mediocre.” (G. Costa 2001)

Costa’s remark was made in the context of an introduction to the work of the photographer Nan Goldin. His observation might be generalised: We have gone from a situation where too little of everything was known, then documented, photographed and/or televised – to one where too much of everything is photographed and exhibited or filmed and televised.

An apology

In an earlier post entitled: ‘Names: Classy and Connard‘ (see: March 13) I did not proof-read the text as thoroughly as I should have. In consequence, I allowed  two errors to appear in the final paragraph of the original post. These two errors made it difficult to make proper sense of the text. They have since been corrected. I apologise for my failings and hope that not too much inconvenience was caused to the reader.

After Sontag: UK culture and a fourth sensibility

Living room - with still from a film
Living room TV – with a still from a film

Susan Sontag in her famous and original essay, ‘On Camp’ prefaced her discussion with some remarks about the central importance of sensibility or ‘taste’ in our lives. She wanted to highlight the fact that the aesthetic realm – the realm of style, decoration, design, the look of something, sensual preference etc. – has a certain primacy and can never be overlooked, ignored or underestimated. She wrote:

Most people think of sensibility or taste as the realm of purely subjective preferences, those mysterious attractions, mainly sensual, that have not been brought under the sovereignty of reason. They allow that considerations of taste play a part in their reactions to people and to works of art. But this attitude is naïve. And even worse: To patronize the faculty of taste is to patronize oneself. For taste governs every free – as opposed to rote – human response. Nothing is more decisive. There is taste in people, visual taste, taste in emotion – and there is taste in acts, taste in morality. Intelligence, as well, is really a kind of taste: taste in ideas.

In other words, part of the very ground of humanity is to apprehend the world through aesthetic perception and judgement.

Having underlined the sheer importance of taste Sontag proceeded to identify the three prevailing artistic sensibilities in the western world:

The first reflects the canons of ‘high culture’: it is concerned with truth, beauty, and seriousness. Sontag recognises that ‘ordinarily we value a work of art because of the seriousness and dignity of what it achieves’ and she cites the paintings of Rembrandt, the poetry of Donne and the cathedral at Chartres, the Iliad and Beethoven’s quartets as examples.

There is a second major sensibility, however, which expresses another kind of seriousness: its trademark is anguish, cruelty, and derangement. Something is good because another kind of truth about the human situation, another experience of what it is to be human – in short, another valid sensibility – is being revealed. She asks us to think of Bosch, Sade, Rimbaud, Kafka and Artaud:  in fact, she asks us to think of most of the important works of art of the 20th century, that is, an art whose goal is not about creating harmonies but of overstraining the medium and introducing more and more violent, and unresolvable, subject-matter. A contemporary expression of this sensibility is found in the work of Anselm Kiefer.

The third among the great creative sensibilities is Camp: this is the sensibility of failed seriousness, of the theatricalization of experience. Camp refuses both the harmonies of traditional seriousness, and the risks of fully identifying with extreme states of feeling. Camp is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world. It incarnates a victory of “style” over “content,” “aesthetics” over “morality,” of irony over tragedy. Sontag invites us to think of Oscar Wilde. The whole point of Camp is ‘to dethrone the serious.’

But Sontag wrote her essay in 1964. Now, as I think about the UK, it seems that a fourth sensibility is upon us. In certain ways it overlaps with a mood reflected in 1990s’ Young British Art. That art represented an anti-aesthetic sensibility – a kind of inversion of good taste. But it was also about sexiness. And it is the explosion of this sexiness that characterises the new sensibility. But it’s not a subtle sexiness; nor is it concerned with the refinement of sexual desire or the sublimation of erotic impulses. The new sensibility is Raunch. What’s it like? Well, it’s everywhere: Raunch is the blatant, direct privileging of the loins; it’s serious enough and takes as its goal the sexual climax; it sexualises the world. It teases and titillates remorselessly – and expresses the total triumph of the orgasmo-sensual.  It’s an amazingly alluring sensibility made possible by the stable but sensual physical environments of shiny surface – of light and throb – that guarantee a space for the pulse of eros. It’s the apogee of a civilisation that understands how ‘sex sells’ and a civilisation that knows all about the relation between repression, taboo and desire.  It’s cynical and knowing: Raunch is animality mediated by digitised image. Raunch is the ethics of relativism fused with socio-biology. There’s a range of Raunch too; at the simple end there is porn; in the middle is the joy of ‘getting down and dirty’; (and still in the middle are all those wiggly girls.) At the sophisticated end there is Lacan. And Lacan tells us how desire can be doused but never extinguished …

Names: Classy and Connard

Names: Uranium
Names: Uranium

Years ago I used to spend the long summer holidays hitch-hiking around Europe. I had all sorts of experiences – and one of the most important things I learned was how good it is to have a decent bed to sleep in. But it also matters where the bed is: it doesn’t really work if you bed down in a den of thieves. So, I also learned the value of a secure, safe and predictable environment – one in which, as the French say, one can ‘rester tranquil’. Whilst I was hitch-hiking I had little idea of the latest news; I went without newspapers or television. In fact, I never really recovered from enjoying a newspaper-free life and I hardly ever bought or read a newspaper on my return to England. By contrast I did continue to watch some television – although because of the way I had been brought up I always felt that there were better ways in which I should be spending my time.

The BBC is supposed to inform, educate and entertain. In fairness, it goes some way towards meeting these long-established strategic objectives. Although people grumble about the ‘rubbish’ that is broadcast I often come across programmes that please me because they alert me to aspects of the world that I might otherwise overlook. These programmes often have a direct educational effect. Recently, for example, I have seen two programmes on the BBC that were remarkable. The first was about people who were getting married in Britain. The programme focused upon immigrant peoples and I could scarcely imagine a better advertisement for the benefits of welcoming people from other nationalities and cultures into the UK. The immigrants really prized the British way of life – and they underlined the importance of hospitality, freedom of speech, the chance to work and the promise of fulfilment or realising one’s potential that the UK made possible. The second programme explored the nature of poverty in the USA. It emphasised what it felt like to be child who was living in poverty and simultaneously it highlighted the problem of homelessness. [The official statistics on poverty and deprivation in the USA are astonishing – with over 16 million children now living in poverty. Increasingly large numbers are homeless and dependent on food aid. It is difficult not to draw the conclusion that there is something very fundamentally wrong with a society that can create such a huge gap between the rich and the poor.] The ‘poor’ people, who were featured were often charming, sensitive and articulate – especially the children. The mother of one of the children was huge and lumbered about trying to look after her family as best she could. Ironically, of course, she was called ‘Classy’. It was one of the few moments of real humour in the programme. I could not imagine a more pointed contrast between her name and her down-at-heel circumstances.

But the name Classy reminded me of an earlier episode when I was lying in a hospital in the French city of Nantes. I’d had an operation on my back so I was obliged to lie prone and remain as still as possible for about a week. However, I really enjoyed the experience because the man in the bed next to me was an expert economist. His name was Michel H. and each day he gave me lectures on the economic problems facing Europe. He predicted that the Greek, Portuguese, Irish and Spanish economies would all begin to collapse (which they did), that the world would enter a global recession (which it did) and that one of the very few ways forward for Europe was to achieve greater political control over the different economies (which it is trying to do). Michel H. (who was nearly 60) had lost faith in the economic culture of France and had dropped out. (He was now living an itinerant life and living in a converted Renault van. I thought this was rather a shame since his expertise was lost to the nation.)

During our conversations the assistant nurses would arrive and bring us our food and generally do all the things necessary to look after both of us. Michel H. was fascinated by one of the young assistant nurses. She was called ‘Elise’. Part of Michel H’s fascination was to do with the fact that he had first thought  Elise was a ‘gitane’ (a gypsy.) Elise had striking looks – made more striking by the design of her eye-makeup which zig-zagged and then arrowed its way across her face. Elise was clearly a character – and sometimes we had a few moments of conversation together. She was a free-spirit and lived a semi-marginal existence. On one occasion I discovered that she had a dog. (Sadly, it was a pit bull.) Elise told me that she took her pit bull terrier for two walks a day, one before coming to work and the other late in the evenings – around one of the fashionable squares in the heart of Nantes. I asked Elise what she had called her dog. She replied that she had named her dog, ‘Connard‘. I was really struck by this name: Connard is an extremely rude French word which means ‘Dickhead‘. If you call someone a Connard in France there is sure to be trouble and the person so called is likely to want to punch you in the face.

When Elise left I couldn’t stop laughing: I began to imagine the consternation she must have caused in Nantes through the mere fact of calling out the name of her dog – of shouting out ‘Connard!‘  Goodness knows how many of the good people of Nantes, innocently promenading in their elegant square, will have wondered if, seemingly at random, they were being called a dickhead.