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.”

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Common White Fallacy #6: Unfalsifiable belief systems about race

A common fallacy of white people is to have a belief system about a non-white racial or ethnic group that cannot be falsified. Wikipedia defines falsifiability as follows:

Falsifiability (or “refutability”) is the logical possibility that an assertion can be shown false by an observation or a physical experiment. That something is “falsifiable” does not mean it is false; rather, that if it is false, then this can be shown by observation or experiment.

In other words, it is not uncommon for a white person to have an unfalsifiable belief system about race, and when shown evidence that refutes a held belief, the given white person engages in absurd rationalizations that “protects” the belief system from any possibility of refutability. For most white people, to be called racist entails being called a bad person, and since the self-concept of oneself as bad is unacceptable for most people, the given white person cannot accept the possibility that he is racist.

Often, the following scenario occurs:

  1. A white person believes some generalization about people of colour, i.e., all people of race R have property P.
  2. A person of colour of race R tells the white person that she does not have property P.
  3. The white person makes some accepting or concilliatory noises towards the person of colour, but then continues to believe that all people of race R have property P.

An example of this is when a white person makes the claim that all black people listen to rap music. If a black person says that she does not listen to rap (but listens to classical music instead, for example), the white person may accept the claim, but then rationalize, “but then you’re not really black.” This white person’s belief system about what kind of music all black people listen to becomes unfalsifiable, because if there is any black person who refutes the generalization, that person suddenly becomes “not black”, and the white person’s sweeping generalization is preserved.

Now this is a relatively obvious example. The white person will not always offer the rationalization that the person is “not really” a member of the group the white person generalized about. (This specific fallacy is known as the no true Scotsman fallacy.) Sometimes the white person will read the dissenting comment as an anomaly or even an alternative opinion that somehow does not interact with the validity of his generalization.*

Unfalsifiable belief systems are problematic, because they are prior assumptions that cannot be tested with reality. Of course, beliefs like “all people of race R have property of Pcan be tested and are falsifiable, but when the person who has the belief rejects any evidence that could possibility refute it, the person’s belief system is unfalsifiable and he cannot be reasoned with. Unfortunately, white people are often unconscious that they are making these kinds of invalid rationalizations to preserve their self-concept as a non-racist (or anti-racist) person.

Ironically, some of these white people believe that white people are more “rational” than non-white people when discussing race, because they are unable to see their own irrationality.

* This is also referred to as “not listening” to people of colour or not taking people of colour seriously.

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