Feynman knew physics but he didn't know ornithology. When you name a bird, you've actually identified a whole lot of important things about it.

I think Feynman's point was that a name is meaningful if you already know the other information. I can memorize a list of names of North American birds, but at the end I'll have learned next to nothing about them. I can also spend my days observing birds and learn a lot without knowing any of their names.

Assigning consistent names to the right groups of things is colossally important to biology and physics.

I don't think anyone will disagree with this. The hard part, though, is properly setting up the groups in the first place. Good classification systems took years (or centuries) of work and refinement to become the systems we take for granted today.

Not being able to name birds for an ornithologist would be like a physicist not being able to say whether an electron and a positron are the same thing or not.

Feynman has been quoted elsewhere criticizing students for parroting physics terminology without having the least idea of what they're actually talking about. There's the anecdote about students who knew all about the laws of refraction but failed to identify water as a medium with a refractive index.


Feynman wasn't really wrong, he just failed to mention that if you want to remember anything about a certain bird that you observed you will have to invent a name for it, because 'the traveler hath no memory'. Original names are OK if you only want the knowledge for yourself.

Rationality Quotes Thread March 2015

by Vaniver 1 min read2nd Mar 2015235 comments


Another month, another rationality quotes thread. The rules are:

  • Please post all quotes separately, so that they can be upvoted or downvoted separately. (If they are strongly related, reply to your own comments. If strongly ordered, then go ahead and post them together.)
  • Do not quote yourself.
  • Do not quote from Less Wrong itself, HPMoR, Eliezer Yudkowsky, or Robin Hanson. If you'd like to revive an old quote from one of those sources, please do so here.
  • No more than 5 quotes per person per monthly thread, please.
  • Provide sufficient information (URL, title, date, page number, etc.) to enable a reader to find the place where you read the quote, or its original source if available. Do not quote with only a name.