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?”
“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.