Subject Literacy Is About Thinking, Not About Facts

The late Richard Feynman is a scientist I hold in high regard.  You may recall the portrayal of him in the 2013 movie, The Challenger Disaster.  He has an impressive scientific portfolio, including a Nobel prize in physics, but his ability to see to the depth of a problem and to communicate it simply, is perhaps his greatest strength.  That ability is not just about science.

Here are some examples.

There are no “Guaranteed Right” answers.

“It is impossible to find an answer which someday will not be found to be wrong”

“It doesn’t make any difference how beautiful the hypothesis (conclusion) is, how smart the author is, or what the author’s name is, if it disagrees with data or observations, it is wrong.”

“I would rather have questions that cannot be answered than answers that cannot be questioned.”

It is a mistake to receive wisdom without thought.  There are all sorts of theories and hypotheses in every field that will eventually be found to be incomplete or even totally wrong.  When we begin with an idea that is the best available, we have a place to start, but not a place to finish.  In finance, the Efficient Market Hypothesis and Modern Portfolio theory are sound reasoning, but likely not a complete and accurate description of what really happens.  Man made climate change looks to be heading that way too.  That’s okay.  Mistakes provide experience and experience provides good decisions.

Feynman had an interesting idea with respect to the all too common human failing of superficial knowledge.

“There is a difference between the name of the thing and what goes on.”

Knowing the name of a bird is information, not knowledge.  Knowing its habits, strengths, limitations and opportunities is knowledge and it provides an ability to use what we know.  Be wary of specialists who use specialist terms when speaking to non-specialists.  These tend to be the name of the thing, not the thing itself.  If the non-specialist lacks the background to understand the deep meaning, they are useless words.

We can always learn more.

“Nobody ever figures out what life is all about, and it doesn’t matter. Explore the world. Nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough.”

Get into things deeply, is good advice.  A former Edmonton Oiler player told me that Wayne Gretzky studied hockey in great depth.  Looking for patterns and weaknesses.  Creativity is often just digging until you see things no one else has seen before.  The sound most often heard just before a great insight is, “Gee, that’s funny.”

Knowing how to think and apply knowledge is a valuable asset and Feynman is among the best. Physicist Murray Gell-Mann had this thought.

“Dick’s scientific method is this. 1) You write down the problem. 2) You think very hard. 3) Then you write down the answer.”

While not many have the ability to complete step 3, carefully working through steps 1 and 2 will avoid information that has not become knowledge. 

It is a way to begin. You will be the better for it.

Don Shaughnessy arranges life insurance for people who understand the value of a life insured estate. He can be reached at The Protectors Group, a large insurance, employee benefits, and investment agency in Peterborough, Ontario.  In previous careers, he has been a partner in a large international public accounting firm, CEO of a software start-up, a partner in an energy management system importer, and briefly in the restaurant business.

Please be in touch if I can help you.  866-285-7772

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