“Do not block the way of inquiry.”
– Charles Sanders Peirce
Theoretical physicist Richard Feynman was appointed to the commission investigating the Challenger space shuttle disaster (seven souls lost in an explosion caused by a fuel tank leak).
“Feynman is becoming a real pain,” said Chairman William Rogers at one point. Of course he was. Feynman was curious. Feynman was a scientist. He wanted facts.
The Rogers commission conducted many hours of hearings and received many written reports. Two facts available to members—and to NASA before the disaster—were:
- The outside temperature at lift-off was much lower than for any previous shuttle launch, and
- Rubber O-ring seals played a crucial role in preventing fuel tank leaks.
Feynman was curious: Had a connection between these two facts caused the disaster? A piece of O-ring was passed around during expert testimony. Feynman cooled the sample in his glass of ice water and pinched it. It failed to spring back into shape. The commission saw that very cold O rings lost flexibility. Inflexible O-rings could cause a fuel tank to leak.
Feynman went on to uncover the fact that NASA misunderstood commonly accepted measures of risk, understating the chance of a shuttle disaster “to the point of fantasy.”
Nobel laureate Richard Feynman was smarter than the other members of the Rogers commission. He was also more curious. He had more common sense. He had gumption.
Curiosity helps you bypass obstacles to clear thinking, including incentives to ignore unpleasant facts. NASA’s obstacle that cold afternoon was “Go Fever,” the top-down bias of a group toward consensus and forward movement without effective consideration of risk.
Here on Earth, money is the primary cause of bias. If you find yourself unsure about where someone is coming from, be curious and follow the money.
Let us say you are sixty years old and have significant left knee pain while walking. The orthopedic surgeon says you need a knee replacement ($40,000). The chiropractor recommends manipulation (full course, $1,700).
The acupuncturist recommends needles in your leg (five sessions, $600). Pfizer recommends Celebrex ($150 for thirty pills). The manager of the GNC store recommends Instaflex Joint Support supplement ($69.99).
Why would they each have a different opinion about what is best for you? Follow the money.
Your family doctor recommends you take aspirin (ten cents per day) and lose weight (free). This option will not make her any money. This is the best thing to try first.
How will you follow your path to inquiry? Gumptionade – The Booster for Your Self Improvement Plan will show you how.
i. “Feynman is becoming a real pain.” James Gleik, “Richard Feynman Dead at 69; Leading Theoretical Physicist,” New York Times, February 17, 1988. http://www.nytimes.com/1988/02/17/obituaries/richard-feynman- deadat-69- leading- theoretical-physicist.html. Accessed July 8, 2014. ii. NASA misunderstood commonly accepted measures of risk… Gleik. Ibid.