Cargo cult science
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Cargo cult science is a phrase describing practices that have the semblance of being scientific, but do not in fact follow the scientific method. The term was first used by physicist Richard Feynman during his 1974 commencement address at the California Institute of Technology.
Cargo cults are religious practices that have appeared in many traditional tribal societies in the wake of interaction with technologically advanced cultures. They focus on obtaining the material wealth (the "cargo") of the advanced culture by imitating the actions they believe cause the appearance of cargo: by building landing strips, mock aircraft, mock radios, and the like. Similarly, although cargo cult sciences employ the trappings of the scientific method, like an airplane with no motor, they fail to deliver anything of value.
Feynman adapted the speech into the final chapter of his book Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!. He based the phrase on a concept in anthropology, the cargo cult, which describes how some pre-industrialized cultures interpreted technologically sophisticated 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.
The following is an excerpt from a speech (taken from the book).
In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he's the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land. They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they're missing something essential, because the planes don't land.
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 gave examples from advertising, politics, and psychology to illustrate the everyday dishonesty which should be unacceptable in science. Feynman cautioned,
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. Feynman believed a scientist of integrity must attempt to give out as much information as possible about their experiments so others could accurately appraise their contribution.
Example in specific experiments and results
The oil drop experiment: The history of published results for this 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 toward the correct value, rather than all having a random distribution from the start around what is now believed to be the correct result. This slow drift in the chronological history of results is unnatural and suggests that nobody wanted to contradict the previous one, instead submitting only concordant results for publication.
In his commencement address, Richard Feynman stated his belief that the antidote to both cargo cult science and pseudoscience is scientific integrity, which he describes as, "a kind of leaning over backwards" to make sure scientists do not fool themselves or others. According to Feynman an ethical scientist must make the extra effort to ensure that their methods and results are transparent, allowing other people to accurately appraise and understand the scientist's research. Feynman uses the case of a Wesson cooking oil advertisement as an example of an unethical and deceptive use of science that delivers nothing of value. The advertisement made the claim that the oil would not soak through food. In reality no oil will soak through food if it is cold enough, and all oil will soak through food if hot enough. Since these facts would not advance Wesson's agenda, these facts were not made readily available for consumers.
In the eighth chapter of his book Interpreting Biomedical Science, Ülo Maiväli presents some possible solutions to the perceived prevalence of cargo cult science. These proposed solutions are as follows: the integration, or the making whole or of science, a more philosophical approach to science, training that instills values of common ownership, egalitarianism and disinterestedness, and a system that distances scientists from economical temptation and scarcity. This system would reduce the number of graduate studies and graduate students to reduce funding pressures. Ideally this would give researchers the financial support to be honest and innovative. Maiväli postulates that honesty is more important than methodology, and is the most effective antidote to cargo cult science.
- Feynman, Richard P. (June 1974). "Cargo Cult Science" (PDF). California Institute of Technology. Retrieved 25 October 2015.
- Witkowski, Tomasz (2016). Psychology Led Astray: Cargo Cult in Science and Therapy. Universal-Publishers. ISBN 978-1627346092. Retrieved 26 June 2017.
- Lilienfeld, Scott; O'Donohue, William (2012). Great Readings in Clinical Science: Essential Selections for Mental Health Professionals. US: Pearson. p. 10. ISBN 978-0205698035.
- Great readings in clinical science : essential selections for mental health professionals. Lilienfeld, Scott O., O'Donohue, William T. Boston: Pearson. 2012. ISBN 978-0205698035. OCLC 720560483.CS1 maint: others (link)
- Lilienfeld, Scott (2012). Great Readings in Clinical Science: Essential Selections for Mental Health Professionals. New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc. p. 10. ISBN 978-0-205-69803-5.
- Ülo, Maiväli (2015). Interpreting biomedical science : experiment, evidence, and belief. London. ISBN 978-0124186897. OCLC 911179264.
- Cargo Cult Science (pdf) article with pictures as originally published in Engineering and Science, Volume 37:7, June 1974.
- Cargo Cult Science (pdf) at Caltech Engineering & Science Library.
- Cargo Cult Science (html) by Richard P. Feynman. Archived May 11, 2018, at the Wayback Machine
- Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! 2010 Cargo Cult Science p 338