The Key to Science (and Life) Is Being Wrong


In 1964, the occasionally enigmatic but always energetic physicist, Dr. Richard Feynman gave a lecture at Cornell University to a packed hall of eager, young scholars. Feynman’s demeanor was crisp and purposeful that day, a style reinforced by his sharp appearance. The professor’s hair was neat and tidy, and he was keenly attired in a trim, tailored suit.

His right hand grasping a piece of chalk, his left had nestled in his coat pocket, Feynman started to speak. “I’m going to discuss how we would look for a new law,” he said in his unvarnished Queens accent, referring to his work as a theoretical physicist.

Feynman walked over to the chalkboard and began to write. His oration continued, almost in a manner synced with his scribbling. “First we guess it… Then we compute the consequences of the guess to see what it would imply. And then we compare those computation results… directly to observation to see if it works.”

Feynman paused, removed his left hand from his coat pocket, and strode back over to the lectern to briefly peruse some notes. He then launched right back into his sermon.

“If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong,” he asserted, craning his neck forward and adroitly pointing his left hand at the chalkboard to accentuate the point. “In that simple statement, is the key to science.”

“It doesn’t make any difference how beautiful your guess is,” Feynman proclaimed, gesticulating in wide, circular, somewhat flamboyant motions. “It doesn’t make any difference 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.”

Written By: Steven Ross Pomeroy
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  1. “It doesn’t make any difference how beautiful your guess is,” Feynman proclaimed, gesticulating in wide, circular, somewhat flamboyant motions. “It doesn’t make any difference 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.”
    And the bishop said…

    It doesn’t make any difference how ugly your opinion is. It doesn’t make any difference how dumb you are, or how uneducated you are. If your opinion disagrees with the observation, that observation is obviously wrong. These observations always seeming to be true but actually being false just confirms your faith. It is proof that god is out there testing your faith and it makes you stronger and your critical powers of observation weaker. Praise the lord.

  2. Feynman’s statement about being wrong is in the last of the seven Messenger Lectures he gave at Cornell.  That last lecture is one of my favorite expositions of all time.  If people would study this seventh lecture with just ten percent of the effort they put into poring over the bible or listening to other’s expound on it our society would be greatly improved.  Gloriously, in fact.


    Sjoerd Westenborg
    The comments below the original article are something to behold.

    Yep!  The AGW denialist trolls are out in force and have high-jacked the discussion at The SfA. 

    They have deep faith in their ignorant perceptions, lack of scientific knowledge, lack of perceptions of time-scales,  and lack of study, -  so cannot possibly learn from being wrong!

  4. While this would be the ideal state for science to be in, reality is probably closer to what Max Planck said: “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

  5. As with many things in science, even the peculiar phenomena of Feynman quotes, reality is often more complex. Most of us are more immediately impacted in everyday lifes by theories from social sciences, particularly nutrition health and economics.

    Here’s an alternative Feynman quote that covers this ground in more depth:

    “Because of the success of science there is a kind of a…I think a kind of pseudoscience, social science is an example of a science which is not a science. They don’t do scientific…they follow the forms…you gather data, you do so and so and so forth but they don’t get any laws, they haven’t found anything, they haven’t got anywhere yet, maybe someday they will but it’s not very well developed, but what happens is…even on a more mundane level we get experts on everything. They sound like a sort of scientific experts. They are not scientists. They sit at the typewriter and make up something like, ‘food grown with fertilizer that’s organic is better for you than food that’s grown with fertilizer that’s inorganic.’  Maybe true but it hasn’t been demonstrated one way or the other but they sit there on the typewriter and make up all that stuff as if its science and then become experts on food, organic foods and so on. There is all kind of myths and pseudoscience all over the place. Now, I might be quite wrong, maybe they do know all these things but I don’t think I’m wrong. You see, I have the advantage of having found out how hard it is to know something, how careful you have to be about checking the experiments, how easy it is to make mistakes and fool yourself. I know what it means to know something and therefore I can’t…I see how they get their information and I can’t believe that they know it. They haven’t done the work necessary, haven’t done the checks necessary, haven’t done the care necessary. I have a great suspicion that they don’t know that this stuff is…and they are intimidating people by it. I think so. I don’t know the world very well…that’s what I think.”

    He’s basically saying that it often isn’t clear whether widely accepted theories in social science agree with experiment. You also need to know something about the extent and quality of efforts to control variables and to try and see whether these theories might be wrong or if the scientists involved were just mining for conforming data.

    Sometimes it is relatively easy to see if an experiment appears to agree with a theory, if the theory happens to be true. But the process might skips the more inconvenient, expensive, difficult, and important steps of eliminating whether a contradictory theory would also be consistent with those same outcomes.

    What might be more useful is an experiment that produces evidence that agrees with the theory being wrong. Otherwise you’re left with theories that are merely not apparently wrong, but which can be perpetually maintained as authoritatively credible simply by avoiding looking too closely at them. It also helps to deter examination and destructive negative criticism by making the theories, or the entire field, as obscure and jargony as possible. This isn’t the same thing is real knowledge.

    Karl Popper had some good ideas on this. That people are often asking the wrong question. And that there can be no reliable method for ensuring the growth of knowledge. Only small samples of reality are usually practically available to be tested. But there is an asymmetry, at least for useful theories, in that there are more ways a wrong theory can be wrong than for a right theory to be right. So critical tests for consistency with a theory being wrong have more weight compared to the accumulation of positive supporting evidence (or the inadvertent discarding of evidence that is assumed to be wrong because the theory is so obviously true).

  6. I found the this article remarkabley life afirming. Please allow me to quote two wonderful Irish fella’s..

     “A man’s errors are his portals of discovery” – James Joyce.

    “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better” – Samuel Beckett.

    Fail better… wow!

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