Feynman was not being arrogant when he told people, “You’re wrong!”

or We Marginalized People Need to be More Like Feynman.

Update: There are some problems with the original post, as I had assumed that everyone else’s work was technical in nature and had formalized customs on what are considered “wrong” answers. In non-technical work situations, telling others that they are wrong would more likely get you fired. See the comments for some criticisms. I have amended this post, which appears as a strikeout correction and a note in the comments.

When the subject of discussion was physics, Feynman‘s brain did not process the higher authority of the people he spoke to. For example, even when he was unknown in his field, he could easily state, “No, you’re wrong,” or “You’re crazy,” to a famous and established physicist, because he would forget “who he was talking to”.

While some people may consider this behaviour arrogant, it actually indicates a temporary extinction of self-consciousness and ego, which is ideal when solving problems.

In Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, chapter Monster Minds, Feynman recounts his experience as a graduate student at Princeton, and research assistant under John Wheeler:

[…] Wheeler said, “Feynman, you’re a young fella—you should give a seminar on this. You need experience in giving talks. Meanwhile, I’ll work out the quantum theory part and give a seminar on that later.”

So it was to be my first technical talk, and Wheeler made arrangements with Eugene Wigner to put it on the regular seminar schedule.

A day or two before the talk I saw Wigner in the hail. “Feynman,” he said, “I think that work you’re doing with Wheeler is very interesting, so I’ve invited Russell to the seminar.” Henry Norris Russell, the famous, great astronomer of the day, was coming to the lecture!

Wigner went on. “I think Professor von Neumann would also he interested.” Johnny von Neumann was the greatest mathematician around. “And Professor Pauli is visiting from Switzerland, it so happens, so I’ve invited Professor Pauli to come”—Pauli was a very famous physicist—and by this time, I’m turning yellow. Finally, Wigner said, “Professor Einstein only rarely comes to our weekly seminars, but your work is so interesting that I’ve invited him specially, so he’s coming, too.”

By this time I must have turned green, because Wigner said, “No, no! Don’t worry! I’ll just warn you, though: If Professor Russell falls asleep–and he will undoubtedly fall asleep—it doesn’t mean that the seminar is bad; he falls asleep in all the seminars. On the other hand, if Professor Pauli is nodding all the time, and seems to be in agreement as the seminar goes along, pay no attention. Professor Pauli has palsy.”

I went back to Wheeler and named all the big, famous people who were coming to the talk he got me to give, and told him I was uneasy about it.

“It’s all right,” he said. “Don’t worry. I’ll answer all the questions.”

[…]

Then the time came to give the talk, and here are these monster minds in front of me, waiting! My first technical talk—and I have this audience! I mean they would put me through the wringer! I remember very clearly seeing my hands shaking as they were pulling out my notes from a brown envelope.

But then a miracle occurred, as it has occurred again and again in my life, and it’s very lucky for me: the moment I start to think about the physics, and have to concentrate on what I’m explaining, nothing else occupies my mind—I’m completely immune to being nervous. So after I started to go, I just didn’t know who was in the room. I was only explaining this idea, that’s all.

In chapter Los Alamos from Below, Feynman started working on the Manhattan Project in a junior position, right after he received his Ph.D.:

Every day I would study and read, study and read. It was a very hectic time. But I had some luck. All the big shots except for Hans Bethe happened to be away at the time, and what Bethe needed was someone to talk to, to push his ideas against. Well, he comes in to this little squirt of an office and starts to argue, explaining his idea. I say, “No, no, you’re crazy. It’ll go like this.” And he says, “Just a moment,” and explains how he’s not crazy, I’m crazy. And we keep on going on like this. You see, when I hear about physics, I just think about physics, and I don’t know who I’m talking to, so I say dopey things like “no, no, you’re wrong,” or “you’re crazy.” But it turned out that’s exactly what he needed. I got a notch up on account of that, and I ended up as a group leader under Bethe with four guys under me.

Later in the same chapter, Feynman says:

I also met Niels Bohr. His name was Nicholas Baker in those days, and he came to Los Alamos with Jim Baker, his son, whose name is really Aage Bohr. They came from Denmark, and they were very famous physicists, as you know. Even to the big shot guys, Bohr was a great god.

We were at a meeting once, the first time he came, and everybody wanted to see the great Bohr. So there were a lot of people there, and we were discussing the problems of the bomb. I was back in a corner somewhere. He came and went, and all I could see of him was from between people’s heads.

In the morning of the day he’s due to come next time, I get a telephone call.

“Hello – Feynman?”

“Yes.”

“This is Jim Baker.” It’s his son. ”My father and I would like to speak to you.”

“Me? I’m Feynman, I’m just a—“

“That’s right. Is eight o’clock OK?”

So, at eight o’clock in the morning, before anybody’s awake, I go down to the place. We go into an office in the technical area and he says, “We have been thinking how we could make the bomb more efficient and we think of the following idea.”

I say, “No, it’s not going to work. It’s not efficient. . . Blah, blah, blah.”

So he says, “How about so and so?”

I said, “That sounds a little bit better, but it’s got this damn fool idea in it.”

This went on for about two hours, going back and forth over lots of ideas, back and forth, arguing. The great Niels kept lighting his pipe; it always went out. And he talked in a way that was un-understandable—mumble, mumble, hard to understand. His son I could understand better.

“Well, “ he says finally, lighting his pipe, “I guess we can call in the big shots now.” So then they called all the other guys and had a discussion with them.

Then the son told me what happened. The last time he was there, he said to his son, “Remember the name of that little fellow in the back over there? He’s the only guy who’s not afraid of me, and will say when I’ve got a crazy idea. So next time when we want to discuss ideas, we’re not going to be able to do it with these guys who say everything is yes, yes, Dr. Bohr. Get that guy and we’ll talk with him first.”

I was always dumb in that way. I never knew who I was talking to. I was always worried about the physics. If the idea looked lousy, I said it looked lousy. If it looked good, I said it looked good. Simple proposition.

I’ve always lived that way. It’s nice, it’s pleasant—if you can do it. I’m lucky in my life that I can do this.

Most people take into account the social position of the person with whom they are interacting when discussing matters of fact, but this is an intellectual defect, not a useful heuristic not a useful heuristic when “wrong” answers are well-defined and can be uncovered with formal proofs, such as in technical fields. Except for Feynman, everyone at Los Alamos deferred to Niels Bohr’s authority, which prevented them from seeing flaws in Bohr’s ideas about the atomic bomb. In other words, when you focus on the person making a claim instead of the claim itself, it interferes with your analytical ability.

In addition to scientific and academic authority, other forms of social authority include those based on gender and race. It is socially appropriate for a man to interrupt a woman while she is speaking about something important, but it less socially appropriate for a woman to interrupt a man while he is speaking about something important. It is socially appropriate for a white person to explain an academic or technical subject to a non-white person, but when a non-white person explains an academic or technical subject to a white person, the explanations are often dismissed without consideration.

Most women and people of colour internalize these social authority hierarchies, just as most men and white people do. Women and people of colour are reprimanded for questioning male or white authority, in addition to being rewarded for accepting academic social authority. White men, on the other hand, are only rewarded for accepting academic social authority, taking for granted the privilege of being able to challenge women and people of colour without being automatically dismissed.

Tentativeness is not a female essence.

Women are stereotyped as more tentative than men, which suggests uncertainty, lack of confidence, and low status, but new research shows that both men and women are tentative when writing about a topic stereotyped as inconsistent with their gender. Men write more confidently only when it comes to stereotypically masculine topics, and write tentatively about stereotypically feminine topics. Women are write more tentatively about stereotypically masculine topics, and write more confidently about stereotypically feminine topics. Unfortunately, science and academia are gender-stereotyped as masculine.

Blogger thinkingdifference seems to assume that tentativeness is a female essence and that the culture of proving wrong originates from the male ego; she argues that academic culture perhaps needs to be more tentative. However, in addition to tentativeness not being a female essence (as demonstrated from the study), the practice of proving wrong is a fundamental component of scientific activity. Scientists make exact and definite claims because exact and definite claims are falsifiable, i.e., it is possible for such claims to be proven wrong. If a scientist makes a claim so inexact and indefinite that it is impossible for it to be false in any situation, then she protects herself from being proven wrong.

This illustrates the difference between how most scientists and most non-scientists view scientific claims from new research. Most non-scientists seem to view a scientist’s strong claim regarding new research as a claim of absolute authority, as something that will persist through the ages, as if a scientist is a modern-day sage. However, scientific claims are made in the context of science being a social activity, a collaboration between scientists with competing theories. A scientist who makes a strong claim makes herself vulnerable to being proven completely wrong by other scientists with hard, empirical evidence. Again, when a scientist makes a claim, the primary target audience is other scientists in the same field, not the general public. A scientific claim is embedded into a larger dialectic within the field; science implicitly uses the Socratic method as a way of discovering truth.

The gendering of confidence is not based on fundamental, innate personality differences between women and men. It is created from gendered socialization and gendered stereotypes, which is why when it comes to stereotypically feminine topics, men are tentative and women are confident. When it comes to science and other academic disciplines involved in the creation of knowledge, the ideal situation is for women to make strong claims and to have their claims taken seriously before being appropriated by men at a later date; the ideal situation is not for the discipline to be more hesitant. Dismissal of ideas based on ad hominem already slows down the process, and hesitancy would only slow it down further.

Feynman helped advance the ideas of Hans Bethe and Niels Bohr in theoretical physics by engaging in a dialectic and forgetting his social position. For marginalized people who are considered uppity if we challenge the ideas of someone in a higher social position, we need to be more like Feynman in dialectical contexts, and reject or suppress the social construction of our ideas as inferior. We need to be unafraid of making strong claims. We need to be comfortable with and unapologetic telling a white man, “You’re wrong!” when appropriate.*

Of course, if we are proven wrong, it may reflect poorly on our gender or our race, while a white man risks only his reputation as an individual. However, we should not let self-consciousness about our group membership paralyze us from participating in the advancement of knowledge, or experiencing the thrill of a heated intellectual debate.


* But not “You’re crazy!”, as that is ableist. “Crazy” is not the same as “wrong”, as people with mental disorders can be correct about facts despite their mental disorder, e.g., obsessive–compulsive disorder, depression, etc.

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18 Responses to “Feynman was not being arrogant when he told people, “You’re wrong!””

  1. RVCBard Says:

    Thanks for the link pimp! I’ll start saying more when I have something more worthwhile to say.

  2. thewhatifgirl Says:

    The other side of this is that I’ve been yelled at by male teachers in my science for “not supporting my hypothesis” when I said something that I didn’t have any solid evidence for, or background in. Considering I hadn’t yet learned what I needed to know to be confident about my answer, and couldn’t exactly go dig up a couple of journal articles in the middle of the class discussion to make sure, I was pretty annoyed by that. And I can imagine that that would be pretty intimidating for some women (it was for me) and would make them even MORE hesitant in the future.

  3. Restructure! Says:

    thewhatifgirl,

    I think that’s a learning opportunity to support your hypothesis next time. Learning what you need to know is necessary for confidence, but not sufficient.

  4. you’re wrong « Raven’s Eye Says:

    […] Feynman was not being arrogant when he told people, “You’re wrong!” « Restructure!. […]

  5. DaisyDeadhead Says:

    Most people take into account the social position of the person with whom they are interacting when discussing matters of fact, but this is an intellectual defect, not a useful heuristic.

    It’s a matter of self-preservation, is what it is. If working class people do not keep in mind who we are talking to, we can end up poor and unemployable. The fact that Feynman never had to worry about this, tells us his class position. (“Tentativeness” is a working class trait, both male and female.)

    Calling working class defense mechanisms and survival tactics “intellectual defects” is upsetting. (I am currently dealing with a right-wing troll on my blog who is saying the same things.)

    “For marginalized people who are considered uppity if we challenge the ideas of someone in a higher social position, we need to be more like Feynman, and reject or suppress the social construction of our ideas as inferior”

    LOL–if you want to be fired, sure.

    I think we must occupy very different social positions, if this can be taken seriously as a mode of behavior at work…. I wouldn’t dream of arguing with management and very rarely have.

    Of course, they are usually wrong; that’s how they got to be management in the first place–never rocking the boat under any circumstances.

  6. Restructure! Says:

    DaisyDeadhead,

    Thanks for the feedback. There is a similar criticism of my post (on getting fired for speaking up) at raveneye.

    I’ve worked at two different (long-term) jobs in two very different industries, but both of them involved problem solving, and “right” and “wrong” answers were formalized and well-defined. This means that I can back up my answers with what is accepted as hard proof, and I cannot be punished if I can show that I am right (or rather that the other person is wrong). I would be rewarded instead.

    I realize now that my experiences are limited, and most of the world probably doesn’t work like that (science/math-like). I will have to edit this post to make it not effed up…

  7. Mel Says:

    I’m not sure one can blithely ignore authority even when one has evidence backing one up in science and math–especially if one is a student, or untenured, or the people in question can block you in peer review (in some subfields, annoying the wrong people can effectively lock you out of ever publishing on certain topics). I’ve heard too many stories of that nature to believe that you don’t have to choose carefully when to hold your ground, especially if you are a woman or minority.

  8. Carrie Says:

    Mel, your comment made me think about the fact that in my science and engineering work experience, things are usually not formalized or well-defined enough to be beyond politics. At best, you can marshal evidence to make an argument one way or another. You can say “These results suggest X” or “call into question Y.” But it’s rare to have such conclusive evidence that you could overcome all those levels of social hierarchy to make a bold claim, like telling an accepted authority “You’re wrong.”

  9. Restructure! Says:

    My experience is on a smaller scale, where wrongness is more well-defined. I’ve pointed out someone else’s somewhat-subtle mathematical error (for something important and central), and I was not punished for it, but thanked. I’ve also pointed out other people’s flaws in programming logic, and I was thanked.

    Now that I think about it, I did create non-trivial resentment among my peers, but not in the eyes of my superiors. On the other hand, my peers may be less resentful of me in another way, since before I did that, they may have perceived me as undeserving of my position.

    I’m not sure about making grand claims (which are different from strong claims), as I haven’t done that yet.

  10. Skud Says:

    Looking at your ETA re: fields that have clearly defined right and wrong answers, I think one of the interesting things in my field (software development) is that some people, especially some geeks who have come from a strong science background or who aren’t very good with grey areas and nuance, think that the work *is* the kind that has absolute right/wrong answers, and tend to argue as if that were the case. Whereas my experience has been that there are a lot more factors than mathematical correctness when it comes to designing good software. So you also have a clash of people who believe that the meritocracy is some kind of mathematical absolute, and those who don’t. I don’t think I’m explaining this as well as I could because I’m pretty tired, but I hope my gist is coming through.

  11. Restructure! Says:

    I too love The unspoken truth about managing geeks, but I don’t think it necessarily argues that IT is a pure meritocracy. It says:

    Ego, as it plays out in IT, is an essential confidence combined with a not-so-subtle cynicism. It’s not about being right for the sake of being right but being right for the sake of saving a lot of time, effort, money and credibility. IT is a team sport, so being right or wrong impacts other members of the group in non-trivial ways. Unlike in many industries, in IT, colleagues can significantly influence the careers of the entire team. Correctness yields respect, respect builds good teams, and good teams build trust and maintain credibility through a healthy projection of ego. Strong IT groups view correctness as a virtue, and certitude as a delivery method.

    Nevertheless, there is the assumption within that culture that business success works like a meritocracy, which is why most programmers do not see the need for marketing. Most believe that if you build a good web app and put it online, people will automatically flock to your site.

    Even the business world is a merit-and-confidence/pushiness-ocracy.

    But this is why I think that communicating to others what you are doing is necessarily in everything. I used to think that if I was a good programmer, my boss would notice, but I learned that everyone else is preoccupied with their own projects, and you have to communicate to others what you have done.

    To other readers: I linked to this post from the comments of a post at Geek Feminism.

  12. How much is that linkspam in the window? (13th December, 2009) | Geek Feminism Blog Says:

    […] Feynman was not being arrogant when he told people, “You’re wrong!”: More meritocracy discussion. Restructure! discusses research showing that when the topic is stereotypically feminine, men are tentative and women are confident. She also argue, in essence, that the merit-and-confidence/pushiness-ocracy is correct and desirable, and women need to be more uppity. […]

  13. Restructure! Says:

    I changed:

    For marginalized people who are considered uppity if we challenge the ideas of someone in a higher social position, we need to be more like Feynman,

    to

    For marginalized people who are considered uppity if we challenge the ideas of someone in a higher social position, we need to be more like Feynman in dialectical contexts,

  14. ahimsa Says:

    While the concept of speaking truth to power is a good one, I certainly agree with all the comments that say there are so many caveats about when and how one can do this.

    In addition to the points already mentioned, I’d like to add that even in science and engineering fields the impact of politics is incredibly strong EVEN IN THE FACE OF UNREFUTABLE DATA. Data alone is not enough to win your point in many situations if you are going against an established organization with money/power/history/etc.

    I can think of two examples that help to illustrate this. One is the history of the air force. Billy Mitchell proved through several experimental bombings that the US armed forces should increase their reliance on air power. But the entrenched power of the army/navy (plus Mitchell’s lack of diplomacy) resulted in a delay of these changes and Mitchell’s court martial.

    For a fictional example, just look at Ibsen’s play An Enemy of the People. The character in the play finds proof that the town’s water is contaminated and causing people to be sick. At first he is lauded as a hero. But when he says that the town should shut down the baths, a major source of tourism (=money!), then everyone objects. Entrenched interested often win out over data. Hey, just look at the arguments over climate change.

    In short, being right is most definitely not enough.

  15. ahimsa Says:

    (sorry about typos and all caps in previous post – meant to proofread and change all caps to bold but hit the ‘return’ button too early)

    I thought I’d add a couple more short comments.

    My first comment is that I absolutely agree that debate is a useful technique. It’s great to give up feeling tentative, ask direct questions, put aside egos, ignore positions of power (who’s the supervisor and who’s the new kid on the block), and so on. When this dynamic works it’s great. I have experienced it (worked as a software engineer for almost 20 years) and it’s a great thing to brainstorm with like-minded folks who want to ignore personalities and just solve the problem.

    So, it’s a great tool to have in your toolbox. It’s just that one needs to be flexible, and be aware of when it will work and how far you can go with it. There are times when a different strategy is more effective. I don’t suggest that one should ever compromise one’s core principles but I do suggest that one can choose different communication styles to fit different situations.

    My second very short comment is that while it was Feynman, not you, who used the phrase “you’re crazy” I didn’t see anyone comment on this as an example of ableist language. This is something you may already be aware of but, if not, then see http://bitchmagazine.org/post/the-transcontinental-disability-choir-what-is-ableist-language-and-why-should-you-care

  16. Restructure! Says:

    Yes, calling people “crazy” is ableist. In an earlier draft, the sentence:

    We need to be comfortable with and unapologetic telling a white man, “You’re wrong!” when appropriate.

    used to be:

    We need to be comfortable with and unapologetic telling a white man, “You’re wrong!” or “You’re crazy!” when appropriate.

    but I realized that it was ableist, and I removed my suggestion to call people “crazy” (as a synonym for “wrong”) before I published the post.

    (Now I updated the post with a footnote about “crazy” being ableist.)

    Your first example of the air force is not good, because it’s the military, and they tend to be more political than scientific. I suppose that in my experiences, the people I opposed were so established and so much higher than me in the hierarchy me that showing that they did something wrong was not a threat, since they had already established their credibility in multiple ways. But they were also professionals, and they care more about using me to produce good work (for which they also receive credit) to compete against their actual peers, than about personality politics. On the other hand, I did receive some pushback from people who were slightly higher than me, but they were not high enough to do anything to me directly.

    Your second example is not good, either, because it is fictional, but I agree with the general point you are making with those examples, which is that data does not convince a politician.

  17. Just A Scientist Says:

    Another beautiful Feynman’s quote is a here.

  18. “Arrogance” is when men lie and women tell the truth. « Restructure! Says:

    […] Feynman was not being arrogant when he told people, “You’re wrong!” […]


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