A Physicist’s Method Of Addressing Truth

The late Richard Feynmann is easily classified as one of the great physicists of the 20th century. Even other brilliant physicists marveled.

Dick’s method is this.  You write down the problem.  You think very hard.  Then you write down the answer.  –  Murray Gell-Mann

His many contributions to theoretical physics (including 1965 Nobel Prize) are surpassed by his brilliant communication skills.

The movie “The Challenger” investigated the cause of the Challenger disaster and it amply displays this skill.  You will see how a great mind takes a complex and conflicted puzzle and reduces it to a simple demonstration.  The best communication is a brief story, an anecdote, or a demonstration.

I recently saw another example of his incisiveness.  It was an aside in a National Post article on 28 April 2015.  The article dealt with the Catholic Church and its possible statement on global climate change.  One can hold any opinion on that subject but Feynman offers a way to decide on its validity and more importantly offers a way to assess the validity of nearly anything.

As Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman explained, we begin with a guess about a law of nature. Then we compute the consequences that would result if our hypothesis is correct — and compare actual observations, evidence and experimental data to the predicted consequences.

If the hypothesis and predictions are borne out by the observations, we have a new rule. But if the hypothesis “disagrees with the experiment, it is wrong,” Feynman says.

That is honest, genuine science.

Time will tell how the climate change hypothesis and observation work out, but the abstract idea of Feynman’s method are worth recording for future reference.

Your skill as an investor.  Your ability to live within your income.  Your ability to do well in school.  Your progress towards financial independence.  These are all testable hypotheses.  And they should be tested periodically, else you lose track of the mission.

There are two points.

  1. There must be a measurable testing procedure.  In the case of money it usually a budget and a financial plan.  In other subjects it will be different but still measurable.  For tangible things, Jack Welch’s rule applies, “If you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it.”
  2. Objectivity is difficult.  If the planner, the observer and the recorder of events are the one person who cares about the outcomes, can they be objective?  Given the opportunity, people will frequently twist facts to make things seem better.  That may not matter if you are playing golf, but financial failures tend to come with a “no do-over” factor.  The external objectivity guarantor is a worthy role for a financial advisor.

Objective reality is the key to success in planning.  Be sure reporting is closely tied to your objectives and pay attention to the variations.  In volatile environments like the stock market, one year’s results are irrelevant.  Avoid the hype.

It is about meaning.  Take care to make sure your observed results are contextually meaningful.  Within the reasonable range for the market and within the reasonable range for your needs.

Contact: don@moneyfyi.com  

Don Shaughnessy is a retired partner in an international public accounting firm and is presently with The Protectors Group, a large personal insurance, employee benefits and investment agency in Peterborough Ontario.

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