Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman relates a time when he was part of the panel judging which textbooks should be used in a California school system. This meant he had to spend a lot of time and energy reading every proposed textbook, and deciding which one should be used.

One in a series of three books hadn’t been printed yet, but the publisher decided to include a blank book with the series to remind the judges that it would soon be forthcoming…and Feynman relates that the blank book got a good rating from 80% of the panel.

Obviously, the panel never bothered to open the book. Presumably, they merely took the word of the publisher of what was in the book and okayed it.

A similar mistake seems to be behind the recent protest in La Sapienza University, where 60 scientists signed a paper protesting the Pope’s defense of the inquisition prosecuting Gallileo.

Someone at the Vatican who knows how to google did a little research. It happens that the letter denouncing the Pope got the university, the date, and the city of the speech wrong. And the only place that had the same three errors was a Wikipedia entry on the speech.

Now, Wikipedia is an excellent starting point for lay people, but it is written and edited by almost anyone, and therefore it has the scientific accuracy of a blog post, not the accuracy one expects from a peer reviewed scientific journal.

Any true scientist would not have relied on only the Wikipedia article, but have cross checked a second source to make sure that the speech had been correctly posted there. And, of course, any true scientist would have read the entire speech before signing the letter…

If the scientists had bothered to read the full speech, they would have recognized that Pope Benedict, like Socrates, would fully explore one side of an argument before going on to demolish it with his own logical opinion. In other words, Benedict was actually supporting Gallileo in the speech, not his Vatican predecessor.

So it is obvious that the scientists who signed the paper were lazy, and had better things to do than read a complicated philosophical speech. Like those who gave a good review to a blank textbook, they merely relied on another’s “expert” opinion.

What can one learn from all of this?

Well, one lesson is that scientists are humans, and have a life. They don’t want to “waste” time trying to understand the nuances of things outside their area of expertise. So and so told them this paper was true, and not having the time or energy to bother to explore the details, they simply signed the paper to go along with popular opinion.

Lesson two is that of Feynman: that even if 1000 scientists sign a paper, their opinion is not as valuable as a single scientist who actually studied the question in detail.


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. Her webpage is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket, and she sometimes posts religious/ethical essays at Boinkie’s blog.

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