8. How to Think Like a Scientist — Following the Evidence

Nobel Prize-winning physicist and accomplished bongo player Richard Feynman, in the classroom.
Nobel Prize-winning physicist and accomplished bongo player Richard Feynman, in the classroom.

When he was a kid, my buddy Richard was smart enough to be afraid of dragonflies.  They had a wicked bite or sting or whatever.  They were dangerous and scary.  Every kid in his town knew this.  The flying terrors were even nicknamed “darning needles”.  When a dragonfly would buzz by during school recess, kids would scream and scatter away.  The same thing was true in my hometown.  My brother even played baseball with a guy who got bit or stung or whatever by a dragonfly and had to be taken to the hospital.

My friend Richard was afraid but also curious.  He wanted to know how bad these ‘darning needles’ really were.  Was it a bite?  A sting?  How painful?  Deadly?  What were the best tactics to stay safe?

He wasn’t a freakazoid, though.  He wasn’t crazy enough to want to experiment with them personally.  Instead, Richard researched the topic to learn what other scientists had found.

This was the days before Google searches and Wikipedia.  So Richard got a book about dragonflies and read all the facts.  Guess what he found?  Dragonflies don’t bite or sting; they are totally harmless!

So when a dragonfly landed on his foot at the beach that summer, he amazed everyone by casually observing the bug and not flinching.  The other kids were screaming and running away in terror, and Richard just stood there, as cool as an ice cube.  Richard was small for his age and not physically strong, but on that day he was the Big Man on the beach.

Thinking like a scientist, Richard followed the evidence he learned and changed his ideas about dragonflies.  To continue being scared after learning they were harmless would be just silly.

Everyone has ideas they believe to be true.  But good scientists are not afraid to follow the evidence wherever it leads.  It’s okay to experiment on your own, and even try a few times.  But if the evidence clearly contradicts your original position, a good scientist admits he’s wrong, and revises his position.   A bad or lazy scientist ignores evidence or make excuses and just keeps his old views.

It takes courage.  I’m sure that Richard was a little scared when that dragonfly first appeared at the beach.  But he trusted the facts he had learned.  Science is about making accurate predictions.  Accuracy comes from following the evidence.

Talking like a scientist, Richard did 5 important things:

  1. He had a hypothesis – “dragonflies are dangerous”
  2. He researched the topic, learning facts that others have already discovered
  3. He found evidence that falsified his hypothesis
  4. He revised his hypothesis – “dragonflies are dangerous harmless”
  5. He experimented, testing and confirming the new idea

My buddy Richard’s last name is Feynman.  I never met Richard Feynman but I call him a friend because he is one of my heroes.  He grew up to become a Nobel Prize winning physicist and accomplished bongo player. Learn more about him at http://www.feynman.com/

Fun Phineas Feynman Quote

“Nature doesn’t care how smart you are. You can still be wrong.” –Richard P. Feynman