|By: Paul S. Cilwa||Viewed: 11/18/2019
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|An entry from Alternate Roads: Paul S. Cilwa's Truck Drivin' Journal|
Friday, March 14, 2003
Lloyd, my passenger, and I were eating lunch in a truck stop in Washington state, when I noticed his gaze fixed over my shoulder. I turned around—discreetly, I hoped—to see what he was looking at. It was another driver, good-looking, that had caught Lloyd's gaze. Normally, that would have been enough for me, too. However, this particular driver was reading a book: Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman. It caught my attention for two reasons. 1) I read this book a number of years ago; and 2) I had recently been discussing it with a member of PumpkinDriver.com.
Richard Feynman was a physicist who won the Nobel Prize and published a number of popular books in which he discussed his ideas regarding Scientific Method and physics in a way the lay reader could understand. Like Carl Sagan, who did the same thing for astronomy, he was also adamant that ESP, psychic phenomena, UFOs, natural medicine, and basically every other concept not embraced by mainstream scientists was bunk; and, in his books, he explained why he thought so.
"What do you think of the book?" I called over to the driver. He looked up and smiled, with pearly white teeth glistening below his blue-green eyes.
"Quite a guy," the driver remarked. "Have you read this?" He waved the book at me.
"Years ago," I said. "I liked his physics."
"Too bad he didn't stick with it," the driver remarked. Without being asked, he moved over to our table. "My name's Todd," he said, sticking out his hand.
"Paul," I said, shaking it.
Lloyd also offered his hand and introduced himself. I'm sure he had no idea who Richard Feynman was, but he wasn't going to miss a chance to be sociable with a good-looking trucker.
"Why do you say he didn't stick with physics? He won the Nobel Prize, after all."
"I mean, in his book. He goes on and on about subjects he knows nothing about, as if his knowledge of physics made him an expert in everything. And it's ironic, too, because he himself warned that scientists have biases that prevent them from perceiving a general reality. Apparently, he thought himself immune."
"I'm not sure any of us is immune from that," I said. "That's why people can perceive such wildly differing worlds."
Lloyd interrupted, "But isn't 'real' real?"
I glanced around the seating area, and gestured toward two men standing on either side of a pretty woman. "See them?" I said, and Lloyd acknowledged that he did. "Suppose one of those men is gay. Do you think they see the same thing when they look at that woman?"
Lloyd thought about it. "I guess not," he admitted. "One would be thinking about having sex with her."
"And the other would be planning her new wardrobe," I finished, which made Todd laugh and left Lloyd looking vacant.
"Well, look at this," Todd said, having turned to a page in the book and pointing to the first paragraph. I read aloud for Lloyd's benefit:
During the Middle Ages there were all kinds of crazy ideas, such as that a piece of rhinoceros horn would increase potency. Then a method was discovered for separating the ideas — which was to try one to see if it worked, and if it didn't work, to eliminate it. This method became organized, of course, into science. And it developed very well, so that we are now in the scientific age. It is such a scientific age, in fact, that we have difficulty in understanding how witch doctors could ever have existed, when nothing that they proposed ever really worked — or very little of it did.
"Now, sure, Feynman was a product of his times," Todd said. "But biases are so subtle they can easily be overlooked. Can you spot the bias in that paragraph?"
Lloyd wanted to know what a bias was, and I explained it. Then I said, "Sure. Feynman assumes witch doctors proposed nothing that really worked, when no scientific study had ever been made to determine whether that was true. And studies since then have shown that witch doctors and shamans actually understand natural medicine very well. Major pharmaceutical firms have sent out teams to learn what witch doctors know, so they can package and profit from it."
Todd and I looked at each other with unexpected mutual respect. While not unheard of, these truck stop philosophical discussions are rare enough to make them treasured.
Lloyd looked confused. "But if his basic assumption is wrong, doesn't that make his whole argument bogus?"
I'm afraid I actually looked surprised, but I tried to recover. "It does," I agreed. "The danger of false assumptions—of biases—is that we confuse them with established facts, and base more assumptions on them."
I read further down the page:
One time I sat down in a bath where there was a beautiful girl sitting with a guy who didn't seem to know her. Right away I began thinking, "Gee! How am I gonna get started talking to this beautiful nude woman?"
I'm trying to figure out what to say, when the guy says to her, "I'm, uh, studying massage. Could I practice on you?"
"Sure", she says. They get out of the bath and she lies down on a massage table nearby.
I think to myself, "What a nifty line! I can never think of anything like that!" He starts to rub her big toe. "I think I feel it", he says. "I feel a kind of dent — is that the pituitary?"
I blurt out, "You're a helluva long way from the pituitary, man!"
They looked at me, horrified — I had blown my cover — and said, "It's reflexology!"
I quickly closed my eyes and appeared to be meditating.
That's just an example of the kind of things that overwhelm me.
"He goes on to dismiss reflexology without ever actually studying it," Todd remarked. "And he uses the example to dismiss all alternative medicine, none of which he's ever studied. For that matter, he's never studied mainstream medicine either; after all, he's a physicist, not a medical doctor."
"I know about reflexology," Lloyd blurted. Todd and I looked at him. "It's one of the treatments I get for my, uh, illness. The doctor at the hospital prescribed it."
"And doctors are prescribing acupuncture, naturopathy, and massage," I added. "All techniques that Feynman ridiculed."
"And yet," Todd said, "there are people right now who are freeze-framed in Feynman's era. They look at his brilliant work in physics and are blinded by his celebrity."
"Then why," I couldn't help but ask, "are you reading this book?"
"Oh, that," he laughed. "Well, I sometimes visit a web site called PumpkinDriver.com, and there was this argument between a guy who calls himself Rafting Bear and some other fellow about Feynman. It inspired me to pick up the book when I had a chance. And it is fun to read."
I laughed. "I'm Rafting Bear," I said, sticking out my hand again. "Who are you?"
He shook hands again, but said, "I'm just a guest. I don't actually post; I just like to read what's going on in the Schneider world once in awhile 'cause I used to drive for them. That guy you were arguing with is a real Nazi, isn't he?"
I shrugged. "Some people aren't strong enough in their convictions to be satisfied with their own beliefs—they have to force others to agree with them."
"Anyway," Todd continued, "I'm glad I read the book—I'm actually re-reading it, now—because I did get a lot of information from it."
"Like this chapter you were reading from, 'Cargo Cult Science'. Do you remember that one?"
"Yeah," I said, and added for Lloyd's benefit, "In World War II, the Navy took over a number of South Pacific islands whose native peoples had never seen white men, much less cargo planes, before. The saw that exciting things came out of the planes. But the war ended, and they felt abandoned by what they thought of as gods. So they tried to make the planes return by inventing religious rituals."
"Here's a description," Todd said, and read aloud,
…they've arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head to imitate headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas — he's the controller — and they wait for the airplanes to land. They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they're missing something essential, because the planes don't land.
"He goes on," Todd continued, "to work with example after example of people trying to make something happen simply because they want it to. It's his way of dismissing people's experiences of UFOs, ESP, and faith healing. He says the experiences are false, that people didn't really have them at all."
"Is that why," Lloyd asked, "when I got a new doctor and told him the reflexology was making me feel better, he told me I didn't really feel better—I only thought I did?" Lloyd looked puzzled and annoyed. "I thought that's what feeling better meant."
I nodded, and Todd continued, "Feynman really missed the boat here. There's a real significant point that's really important. It's true that every thing the islanders do fails to make a cargo plane re-appear. But, you know what he missed?"
"Sure," I snorted. "There really are cargo planes. The islanders' techniques are flawed, but their underlying truth is valid."
Todd looked startled, but pleased, that he wasn't the only one to have gotten this. I excused myself to go to the bathroom. When I returned, Todd was gone and Lloyd was stuffing a piece of paper into his pocket.
"He's gone, eh?" I asked. "Too bad. It would have been fun to talk more with him."
"Don't worry," Lloyd said reassuringly. "I got his cell phone number."
I'm beginning to suspect that, if Lloyd were advising them, those South Sea islanders would have cargo planes landing in no time.
Complete with good-looking pilots.