Cargo cult science
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Cargo cult science refers to practices that have the semblance of being scientific, but do not in fact follow the scientific method. The term was first used by the physicist Richard Feynman during his commencement address at the California Institute of Technology, United States, in 1974. Cargo cults—the religious practice that has appeared in many traditional tribal societies in the wake of interaction with technologically advanced cultures—focus on obtaining the material wealth (the "cargo") of the advanced culture by building mock aircraft, landing strips, and the like.
Feynman's speech 
The speech is reproduced in the book Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! and on many websites. Feynman based the phrase on a concept in anthropology, the cargo cult, which describes how some pre-scientific cultures interpreted technologically advanced visitors as religious or supernatural figures who brought boons of cargo. Later, in an effort to call for a second visit the natives would develop and engage in complex religious rituals, mirroring the previously observed behavior of the visitors manipulating their machines but without understanding the true nature of those tasks. Just as cargo cultists create mock airports that fail to produce airplanes, cargo cult scientists conduct flawed research that superficially resembles the scientific method, but which fails to produce scientifically useful results.
Feynman cautioned that to avoid becoming cargo cult scientists, researchers must avoid fooling themselves, be willing to question and doubt their own theories and their own results, and investigate possible flaws in a theory or an experiment. He recommended that researchers adopt an unusually high level of honesty which is rarely encountered in everyday life, and gives examples from advertising, politics, and behavioral psychology to illustrate the everyday dishonesty which should be unacceptable in science. Feynman cautions,
- "We've learned from experience that the truth will come out. Other experimenters will repeat your experiment and find out whether you were wrong or right. Nature's phenomena will agree or they'll disagree with your theory. And, although you may gain some temporary fame and excitement, you will not gain a good reputation as a scientist if you haven't tried to be very careful in this kind of work. And it's this type of integrity, this kind of care not to fool yourself, that is missing to a large extent in much of the research in Cargo Cult Science."
An example of cargo cult science is an experiment that uses another researcher's results in lieu of an experimental control. Since the other researcher's conditions might differ from those of the present experiment in unknown ways, differences in the outcome might have no relation to the independent variable under consideration. Other examples, given by Feynman, are from educational research, psychology (particularly parapsychology), and physics. He also mentions other kinds of dishonesty, for example, falsely promoting one's research to secure funding.
Examples in specific experiments and results 
- Oil drop experiment: The history of published results for this famous experiment is an example given in Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! – in which each new publication slowly and quietly drifted more and more away from the initial (erroneous) values given by Robert Millikan, rather than all having a random distribution from the start around what we now believe the correct result is. This slow and linear drift in the chronological history of results is unnatural and suggests that nobody wanted to contradict the previous one, instead only submitting for publication "agreeable" results.
- Physician Raymond Tallis describes the psychoanalytic school established by Jacques Lacan as an example of cargo cult science. Tallis argues that Lacan, who was poorly trained in both traditional medicine and psychoanalysis, superficially mimicked medicine and science, and that Lacan's later devotees similarly mimic their guru's confused concepts.
See also 
- Sokal affair
- Junk science
- Magical thinking
- Post-normal science
- Cargo cult programming
- Cargo cult
- Diaconis, P (1985) "Theories of data analysis: from magical thinking through classical statistics", in Hoaglin, D.C et al. (eds). Exploring Data Tables Trends and Shapes. Wiley. ISBN 0-470-04005-X.
- Cargo Cult Science (pdf) article with pictures as originally published in Engineering and Science, Volume 37:7, June 1974.
- Cargo Cult Science (html) by Richard P. Feynman.