What Richard Feynman Can Teach You About Political Science

Richard Feynman was perhaps the greatest science teacher ever. Just yesterday, I read a lecture of his titled What is Science and it did two things to me. One, it made me realize my responsibility as a father in inculcating the scientific spirit in my children. Two, it made me realize that everything he says about science is applicable to the social sciences, including political science. Since I have an interest in political science nowadays, let me use Feynman’s lecture to illustrate the importance of scientific spirit for political change.

Richard Feynman was perhaps the greatest science teacher ever. Just yesterday, I read a lecture of his titled What is Science. It did two things to me.

One, it made me realize my responsibility as a father in inculcating the scientific spirit in my children. Two, it made me realize that everything he says about science is applicable to the social sciences, including political science.

Since I have an interest in political science nowadays, let me use Feynman’s lecture to illustrate the importance of scientific spirit for political change.

Embedded in the long lecture is a sort-of long definition of science:

And that is what science is: the result of the discovery that it is worthwhile rechecking by new direct experience, and not necessarily trusting the [human] race’s experience from the past.

So there you go. Want the shorter version? Here it is:

Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.

The two are interchangeable, really. It’s only when we believe that the experts may be wrong that we discover for ourselves what is right using new direct experience.

It’s only by questioning received knowledge that the greatest advances in science have happened. Newton did it. Einstein did it. Neils Bohr did it. Feynman himself did it. Nobody who is somebody in science could have accepted all received knowledge. On the other hand, those who accept everything given are the real nobodies in science.

Let’s come to political science. It’s really no different here. If at all anyone wishes to advance the science, there is no option but to question received knowledge.

But politicians have a knack for making people believe that their expertise is unquestionable. They weave a web of intoxication in which they make it unsocial, unpatriotic, illegal, even criminal to question their expertise.

It is such politicians who found nations. Even our nation, the Indian nation, was founded by them. We’re urged to worship them. But to worship them is to believe in their infallibility. There are innumerable proofs of their fallibility, if only we have the scientific spirit to analyze what they did.

The Constitution of India, for instance, needs to be rewritten from scratch. It’s a totally flawed document which, by its overly centrist approach, makes India only a namesake democracy.

If we wish to improve the condition of the people of India, we cannot afford like unscientific people to believe that India’s founders were 100% right in everything they did. No, they were humans.

Unless, as Feynman urges, we are ready to rediscover what is right ourselves, we’ll forever be bound by the limits of their intellect, their priorities, and their worldviews.

I can say with some pride that it is such a rediscovery which led to my book, The Pyramid of Corruption. You can read a synopsis here, the first chapter here, and buy it here.