Richard Feynman Teaches you the Scientific Method

The scientific method refers to a process of thought based on integrating previous knowledge, observing, measuring, and logical reasoning.

“If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science.”

— Richard Feynman

In this short video taken from his lectures, Physicist Richard Feynman offers perhaps one of the greatest definitions of science and the scientific method that I’ve ever heard. And he does it in about a minute.

Now I’m going to discuss how we would look for a new law. In general, we look for a new law by the following process. First, we guess it (audience laughter), no, don’t laugh, that’s the truth. Then we compute the consequences of the guess, to see what, if this is right, if this law we guess is right, to see what it would imply and then we compare the computation results to nature or we say compare to experiment or experience, compare it directly with observations to see if it works.

If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn’t make any difference how beautiful your guess is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are who made the guess, or what his name is … If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.

For more color watch the longer version below, which offers the next 9 minutes of the lecture. In this clip Feynman explains that guessing is not unscientific: “It is not unscientific to take a guess, although many people who are not in science believe that it is.”

The Scientific Method is part of the Farnam Street Latticework of Mental Models.

The Man In The Arena: Citizenship In A Republic

It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.
Theodore Roosevelt1

There are those among us who dare to do more and in so doing draw attention to themselves. Sometimes they win, and sometimes they come up short but what they really enjoy is the fight — the striving to do better that’s needed to accomplish great things.

In contrast, most adults play it safe — standing on the sidelines watching others struggle to do more. As such, they know neither victory nor defeat — they only know how to comment on the struggle of others.

Remember Roosevelt’s oration the next time you criticize.


In Rising Strong, Brene Brown comments on Roosevelt’s speech, focusing on one particular part: “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.” She writes —

Imagine the sound of a needle scratching across a record. Stop here. Before I hear anything else about triumph or achievement, this is where I want to slow down time so I can figure out exactly what happens next.

We’re facedown in the arena. Maybe the crowd has gone silent, the way it does at football games or my daughter’s field hockey matches when the players on the field take a knee because someone is hurt. Or maybe people have started booing and jeering. Or maybe you have tunnel vision and all you can hear is your parent screaming, “Get up! Shake it off!”

Our “facedown” moments can be big ones like getting fired or finding out about an affair, or they can be small ones like learning a child has lied about her report card or experiencing a disappointment at work. Arenas always conjure up grandeur, but an arena is any moment when or place where we have risked showing up and being seen. Risking being awkward and goofy at a new exercise class is an arena. Leading a team at work is an arena. A tough parenting moment puts us in the arena. Being in love is definitely an arena.

When I started thinking about this research, I went to the data and asked myself, What happens when we’re facedown? What’s going on in this moment? What do the women and men who have successfully staggered to their feet and found the courage to try again have in common? What is the process of rising strong?

I wasn’t positive that slowing down time to capture the process was possible, but I was inspired by Sherlock Holmes to give it a shot. …

In Season 3, there’s an episode where Sherlock is shot. Don’t worry, I won’t say by whom or why, but, wow, I did not see it coming. The moment he’s shot, time stops. Rather than immediately falling, Sherlock goes into his “mind palace”—that crazy cognitive space where he retrieves memories from cerebral filing cabinets, plots car routes, and makes impossible connections between random facts. Over the next ten minutes or so, many of the cast of recurring characters appear in his mind, each one working in his or her area of expertise and talking him through the best way to stay alive.

First, the London coroner who has a terrific crush on Sherlock shows up. She shakes her head at Sherlock, who seems completely taken aback by his inability to make sense of what’s happening, and comments, “It’s not like it is in the movies, is it, Sherlock?” Aided by a member of the forensics team at New Scotland Yard and Sherlock’s menacing brother, she explains the physics of how he should fall, how shock works, and what he can do to keep himself conscious. The three warn him when pain is coming and what he can expect. What probably takes three seconds in real time plays out for more than ten minutes on the screen. I thought the writing was genius, and it re-energized my efforts to keep at my own slow-motion project.

My goal for this book is to slow down the falling and rising processes: to bring into our awareness all the choices that unfurl in front of us during those moments of discomfort and hurt, and to explore the consequences of those choices.


On a cultural level, I think the absence of honest conversation about the hard work that takes us from lying facedown in the arena to rising strong has led to two dangerous outcomes: the propensity to gold-plate grit and a badassery deficit.


Taleb: The Risk Externalities of Too Big to Fail

Too Big to Fail” is a dilemma that has plagued economists, policy makers and the public at large. In Nassim Taleb’s lastest paper (with co-author Charles S. Tapiero) he takes a look.


This paper examines the risk externalities stemming from the size of institutions. Assuming (conservatively) that a firm risk exposure is limited to its capital while its external (and random) losses are unbounded we establish a condition for a firm to be too big to fail. In particular, expected risk externalities’ losses conditions for positive first and second derivatives with respect to the firm capital are derived. Examples and analytical results are obtained based on firms’ random effects on their external losses (their risk externalities) and policy implications are drawn that assess both the effects of “too big to fail firms” and their regulation.

The conclusion is worth reading even if you don’t read the paper — a small tease

However, the non- transparent bonuses that CEOs of large banks apply to themselves while not a factor in banks failure is a violation of the trust signaled by the incentives that banks have created to maintain the payments they distribute to themselves. For these reasons, too big too fail banks may entail too large too bear risk externalities. The result we have obtained indicate that this is a fact when banks internal risks have an extreme probability distribution (as this is often the case in VaR studies) and when external risks are an unbounded Pareto distribution.


Niccolò Machiavelli and the Four Princes of Pragmatism

To top off the course The Moral Leader, Professor Badaracco’s students dissect Niccolo Machiavelli’s chilling classic The Prince.

“You may think that’s an odd place to end what is essentially a business ethics elective,” Badaracco acknowledged with a smile.

Students talk about what Machiavelli has to say on one crucial key to leadership: leading in the world as it is.

Four different takes on The Prince usually emerge in their discussion—though there are at least a hundred different readings of Machiavelli for scholars who truly delve into the literature, Badaracco points out.

Version 1: “This book is a mess. It was written by a guy who hoped to get to the center of things, was there briefly, offended some of the wrong Medicis, was exiled, was tortured, and wanted to get back in.” It’s “a scholar’s dream because you can find anything you want in it and play intellectual games. But just put it aside.”

Version 2: “Now wait a minute. There’s some good common sense in there. Machiavelli is basically saying that if you want to make an omelet you have to break some eggs. … To do some right things, you may have to not do some other right things.”

Version 3: Other students believe the book is still around because it’s so evil. Why is it evil? “If you look closely at The Prince,” he said, “it’s quite interesting what isn’t in the book. Nothing about religion. Nothing about the Church. Nothing about God. There’s nothing about spirituality. Almost nothing about the law. Almost nothing about traditions. You’re out there on your own doing what works for you in terms of naked ambition.”

Version 4: A fourth Prince that other students uncover is the most interesting one, in Badaracco’s mind. Students find that the book reveals a kind of worldview, he says, and it’s not an evil worldview. This version goes: “If you’re going to make progress in the world you’ve got to have a clear sense, a realistic sense, an unsentimental sense, of how things really work: the mixed motives that compel some people and the high motives that compel some others. And the low motives that unfortunately captivate other people.”

Students who claim the fourth Prince, he said, believe that if they’re going to make a difference, it’s got to be in that world, “not in some ideal world that you would really like to live in.”

How Con Artists Exploit Human Behaviour

Fascinating (read the PDF! summary below)

The seven principles of human behaviour that con artists exploit, according to the article:


  1. The distraction principle: While you are distracted by what retains your interest, hustlers can do anything to you and you won’t notice.
  2. The social compliance principle: Society trains people not to question authority. Hustlers exploit this “suspension of suspiciousness” to make you do what they want.
  3. The herd principle: Even suspicious marks will let their guard down when everyone next to them appears to share the same risks. Safety in numbers? Not if they’re all conspiring against you.
  4. The dishonesty principle: Anything illegal you do will be used against you by the fraudster, making it harder for you to seek help once you realize you’ve been had.
  5. The deception principle: Things and people are not what they seem. Hustlers know how to manipulate you to make you believe that they are.
  6. The need and greed principle: Your needs and desires make you vulnerable. Once hustlers know what you really want, they can easily manipulate you.
  7. The Time principle: When you are under time pressure to make an important choice, you use a different decision strategy. Hustlers steer you towards a strategy involving less reasoning.

See the PDF

The High Cost of Distractions

We tend to think that other people get distracted but not us. We’re different. We’re better than average. We can do more than one thing at a time and still be amazing.

Not so.

The always-on world of 24/7 bits and bytes is leaving an impact. While we cling to the illusion that we’re more productive, in reality, we’re not. Distractions eat time. And more importantly they create an environment where we shallow think.

Here is an excerpt from Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long, where author David Rock discusses this in more detail.

Distractions are everywhere. And with the always-on technologies of today, they take a heavy toll on productivity. One study found that office distractions eat an average 2.1 hours a day. Another study, published in October 2005, found that employees spent an average of 11 minutes on a project before being distracted. After an interruption it takes them 25 minutes to return to the original task, if they do at all. People switch activities every three minutes, either making a call, speaking with someone in their cubicle, or working on a document.

But that’s not all. Distractions are impacting our ability to focus. And focus is how we use second-order thinking. Rock writes:

Distractions are not just frustrating; they can be exhausting. By the time you get back to where you were, your ability to stay focused goes down even further as you have even less glucose available now. Change focus ten times an hour (one study showed people in offices did so as much as 20 times an hour), and your productive thinking time is only a fraction of what’s possible. Less energy equals less capacity to understand, decide, recall, memorize, and inhibit. The result could be mistakes on important tasks. Or distractions can cause you to forget good ideas and lose valuable insights. Having a great idea and not being able to remember it can be frustrating, like an itch you can’t scratch, yet another distraction to manage.

Maybe open-plan offices are not such a good idea after all. Not only do we do more work, but we do our best work when we’re distraction free.


If you enjoyed this article you’ll also like:

In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed — This article explores our cultural desire for speed and its consequences. Slow, it turns out, is the best way to increase understanding and avoid problems.

How to Survive in an Open Office — The author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain, offers advice on how to survive in an open office.