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Richard Feynman and the tyranny of measurement

I followed a link at Steve Hsu’s blog and came to this discussion of Feyman’s cognitive style. Hsu writes that “it was often easier for [Feynman] to invent his own solution than to read through someone else’s lengthy paper” and he follows up with a story in which “Feynman did not understand the conventional formulation of QED even after Dyson’s paper proving the equivalence of the Feynman and Schwinger methods.” Apparently Feynman was eventually able to find an error in this article but only after an immense effort. In Hsu’s telling (which I have no reason to doubt), Feynman avoided reading papers by others in part out of a desire to derive everything from first principles, but also because of his own strengths and limitations, his “cognitive profile.”

This is all fine and it makes sense to me. Indeed, I recognize Feynman’s attitude myself: it can often be a take a lot of work to follow someone else’s paper if has lots of technical material, and I typically prefer to read a paper shallowly, get the gist, and then focus on a mix of specific details (trying to understand one example) and big picture, without necessarily following all the arguments. This seems to be Feynman’s attitude too.

The place where I part from Hsu is in this judgment of his:

Feynman’s cognitive profile was probably a bit lopsided — he was stronger mathematically than verbally. . . . it was often easier for him to invent his own solution than to read through someone else’s lengthy paper.

I have a couple of problems with this. First, Feynman was obviously very strong verbally, given that he wrote a couple of classic books. Sure, he dictated these books, he didn’t actually write them (at least that’s my understanding of how the books were put together), but still, you need good verbal skills to put things the way he did. By comparison, consider Murray Gell-mann, who prided himself on his cultured literacy but couldn’t write well for general audiences.

Anyway, sure, Feynman’s math skills were much better developed than his verbal skills. But compared to other top physicists (which is the relevant measure here)? That’s not so clear.

I’ll go with Hsu’s position that Feynman was better than others at coming up with original ideas while not being so willing to put in the effort to understand what others had written. But I’m guessing that this latter disinclination doesn’t have much to do with “verbal skills.”

Here’s where I think Hsu has fallen victim to the tyranny of measurement—that is, to the fallacy of treating concepts as more important if they are more accessible to measurement.

“Much stronger mathematically than verbally”—where does that come from?

College admissions tests are divided into math and verbal sections, so there’s that. But it’s a fallacy to divide cognitive abilities into these two parts, especially in a particular domain such as theoretical physics which requires very particular skills.

Let me put it another way. My math skills are much lower than Feynman’s and my verbal skills are comparable. I think we can all agree that my “imbalance”—the difference (however measured) between my math and verbal skills—is much lower than Feynman’s. Nonetheless, I too do my best to avoid reading highly technical work by others. Like Feynman (but of course at a much lower level), I prefer to come up with my own ideas rather than work to figure out what others are doing. And I typically evaluate others’ work using my personal basket of examples. Which can irritate the Judea Pearls of the world, as I just don’t always have the patience to figure out exactly why something that doesn’t work, doesn’t work. Like Feynman in that story, I can do it, but it takes work. Sometimes that work is worth it; for example, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to understand exactly what assumptions implicitly support regression discontinuity analysis, so that I could get a better sense of what happened in the notorious regression discontinuity FAIL pollution in China analysis, where the researchers in question seemingly followed all the rules but still went wrong.

Anyway, that’s a tangent. My real point is that we should be able to talk about different cognitive styles and abilities without the tyranny of measurement straitjacketing us into simple categories that happen to line up with college admissions tests. In many settings I imagine these dimensions are psychometrically relevant but I’m skeptical about applying them to theoretical physics.

35 Comments

  1. Danil says:

    “Much stronger mathematically than verbally”—where does that come from?

    Well, Feynman provides supporting anecdotes in _Surely You’re Joking_

  2. steve hsu says:

    Hi Andrew,

    Slight correction: there was no significant error in Dyson’s paper. It was a paper by Case (“Case’s Theorem”) that forced Feynman to finally work through the conventional formulation of quantum field theory in terms of field operators.

    In my view, to the extent that psychometric qualities like “verbal ability” or “math ability” are well-defined, Feynman was far more unusual in his math ability than the other. I think this is *partially* responsible for his habit of ignoring the literature, although his independent streak, creativity, etc. also played a role.

    Interested readers might also enjoy the follow up post on this topic: http://infoproc.blogspot.com/2013/11/feynman-and-secret-of-magic.html

    More on Schwinger: http://infoproc.blogspot.com/2015/06/schwinger-meets-rabi.html

    All the best,
    Steve

    • Phil says:

      I’m pretty sure Andrew agrees that Feynman’s math skills were more developed than his verbal skills. I think that’s what Andrew meant when he said “Anyway, sure, Feynman’s math skill were much better developed than his verbal skills.” Certainly I agree with that.

      But I also agree with Andrew that I don’t think that explains Feynman’s distaste for reading other people’s highly technical papers. It’s not that he couldn’t understand the text of the papers. His verbal skills were surely better than those of most physicists in his field.

    • Andrew says:

      Steve:

      I followed the link. Pretty scary where that racist dude starts flaming you. Ahhh, the internet!

  3. Bob says:

    The list of winners of the Putnam is at
    http://www.maa.org/programs/maa-awards/putnam-competition-individual-and-team-winners

    Feynman is one of the five listed for 1939.

    Now, the contest was new then, so participation may have been lower than today. But, still.

    Bob

  4. Martha says:

    I agree with Andrew that “we should be able to talk about different cognitive styles and abilities without the tyranny of measurement straitjacketing us into simple categories that happen to line up with college admissions tests. In many settings I imagine these dimensions are psychometrically relevant …”

    One of my beefs is that, even if something is “psychometrically relevant”, it often is composed of many sub-whatevers that become very relevant when we are talking about individual people or circumstances. (Just as two populations having a difference in means says nothing about individuals, and strong evidence of global warming doesn’t do much to help predict the weather in someone’s home town).

    One of the most fascinating things in my teaching was teaching (many times) a course in problem solving. I really got to see individual differences in abilities and preferences. For example, just within “mathematical ability” there are tremendous differences between individuals. In particular, some people are stronger geometrically than algebraically, some the reverse, and some in between. I especially enjoyed giving problems that could be solved by either an algebraic approach or a geometric one. I would ask for a volunteer to show their solution, then when they were done ask, “Did anyone use a different approach?” Inevitably, after both approaches were shown, someone who used an algebraic approach would say, “I would never have thought of” a geometric approach, and vice versa.

    And there are also differences between “big picture” people and “technical details” people. And (relevant to Andrew’s compare-and-contrast) some people who “have to figure it out for themselves” may end up giving a better explanation than in the original paper.

  5. numeric says:

    Do you have the Chen dataset? Or do you know where it can be obtained?

  6. Steve Sailer says:

    Most famous physicists have been highly cultured, but Feynman was ostentatiously into being, culturally, a Regular Guy who hung out at topless bars.

    My guess would be that Feynman had some kind of dyslexia that made reading relatively harder for him, while he was far above average in most other cognitive skills, including oral storytelling.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Einstein, Feynman and number of similar figures had a pathological desire to be celebrity physicists and went to enormous lengths to make it happen. Any anecdotes or claims told by them or about them should be met with the same incredulity as when hearing a life long politician say “I’m resigning to spend more time with my family”. Basing any grand theories off such anecdotes is a waste of time.

    • steve hsu says:

      Feynman really did hang out at topless bars. I know this for a fact! :-)

      • Anonymous says:

        He wanted a colorful “what will this eccentric supergenius do next” story that he could tell people and more importantly they could tell about him.

        Many of these guys went to enourmas trouble to manufacture these puplic personas and were obsessed with doing so.

        • Rahul says:

          If Feynman was obsessed with that, he sure did find a lot of free time on the side to do some good physics.

          • Anonymous2 says:

            Sure, because the one is useless without the other. If you *only* hang out at topless bars, you’re not an “eccentric supergenius”. You’re just a guy who hangs out at topless bars.

            • Rahul says:

              If he hadn’t hung out at topless bars he would still have been a super-genius. And an excellent teacher, writer & science communicator. Few super-geniuses are all that.

              So what we are really quibbling about is whether he was a natural eccentric or not. Doesn’t matter much.

        • Adrian Kibet says:

          There’s a certain irony in believing that a larger than life character couldn’t possibly be real because he’s larger than life. Therefore everyone eccentric must really only be so to impress his audience. In ‘Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track’ a lot of his letters were published. Some of those letters were from his time at MIT. By your logic, the eccentricities he displayed in his lifelong letter writing were in some sort of plan to become so famous that after his death someone would collect these letters and publish them in a book? Damn, he was good.

      • Anonymous says:

        Incidentally Steve it would do many a bright physics/math student a world of good to be told the truth about this kind of stuff.

        Einstein didn’t site any references in his 1905 relativity papers because he wanted to create the impression he had done it all himself out of thin air in his patent office (reading Poincare’s 1904 St. Louis Worlds Fair lecture is an eye opener).

        Mandlebrot wasn’t the creator of a stunningly useful new mathematics, rather he was obsessed with going down in history as the Newton like creator of a new mathematics and latched onto the not-terribly-useful fractals to do it.

        And anyone whose ever met a human being knows Feynman didn’t go to strip clubs to do calculations. He did it so he could tell people he went to strip clubs to do calculations.

        Examples from other big names could be given.

  8. Steen says:

    I think of Feynman (Einstein, Steven Chu, etc.) as more of a visual thinker than a mathematical one.

  9. Slugger says:

    Feynman might have been a little irritated at us normals for our deficiencies. On youtube one can find his well known piece on “why” things happen. At first he is in a little snit about the question, but he settles down and provides a discussion that left me in awe at the depth of his thinking.
    BTW, one of my favorite discussions on problem solving is in Gell-Mann’s book on using a barometer to measure the heigth of a building. He comes up with several solution in addition to using the difference in pressure; my favorite is throwing the baromer off the roof and using equations for gravity to determine the height.

  10. Anonymous2 says:

    “Sure, he dictated these books, he didn’t actually write them (at least that’s my understanding of how the books were put together)”

    If you listen to any of the recordings we have, it seems the books were basically just a transcription of what he said. There was essentially zero editing done.

  11. Hal A says:

    Don’t overlook that we have third party accounts of people taking their research to Feynmann and him refusing to read it and instead going to the blackboard to work through the problem from first principles because to read it would spoil the fun.
    Whether you think he was a pathological liar and granstander of the first order, or not, hmm, he did give his own accounts of how much he enjoyed working out for himself what was already known when learning mathematics or indeed translating Aztec or Inca artefacts as a codebreaking exercise while believing the solution was on the other page (turned out it wasn’t) while on honeymoon.

    The guy did pretty much what he /liked/. Maybe we don’t need to read too much more into it than that else run the risk of thinking leaving our hair uncombed is in some way related to the quality of the operations being carried out beneath it (if you still got it!)

  12. James says:

    Unfortunately, “legibility bias” appears to already be a thing, but the concept of legibility has been very useful to me and I think it’s what you’re describing here. (http://www.ribbonfarm.com/2010/07/26/a-big-little-idea-called-legibility/)

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