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Friday, February 13, 2009


This is a term invented by Richard Feynman that I linked into a few days ago. The "cargo cults" happened in the south seas when at the end of WW2 the Americans went home & supplies of Coca-cola, comic books etc for the natives dried up. The natives decided to build their own airfields etc out of bamboo & hope they would fool the great sky gods into resuming deliveries. Hence cargo cult science is where the "scientist" puts on a white coat but omits to do real experiments, theory testing & general scientific method.

Catastrophic global warming is a common hunting ground. There is no actual evidence that it is happening but a lot of flashy film of people in white coats & computer programmes (repeatedly found to be nonsense or using nonsense data) & wholly corrupt fascists like Monty Don on Question Time yesterday saying 99% of scientists support them. The passive smoking scare is another. If SEPA prove unable to produce genuine proof that their radium paint is actual paint they would be another. The papers are full of "reports" by "researchers" about the dangers of salt, salmon, having short fingers, what we would evolve into if we spend 100,000 years etc all based either on "statistical research" of asking about 30 people or extrapolating some well known principle beyond any validity. Or creationism which is neither more nor less cargo cultism than the rest.

I ran across Feynman's remark backtracking a google hit on my article about Professor Hulme's article in the Guardian about "post normal science" which fits the definition with a particular emphasis on the alleged duty of the scientist to fix his conclusions to fit the preconceptions of those in power with its conclusion that " scientists ... must trade (normal) truth for influence". There is an awful lot of it about.

During the Middle Ages there were all kinds of crazy ideas, such as that a piece of rhinoceros horn would increase potency. Then a method was discovered for separating the ideas -- which was to try one to see if it worked, and if it didn't work, to eliminate it. This method became organized, of course, into science. And it developed very well, so that we are now in the scientific age. It is such a scientific age, in fact, that we have difficulty in understanding how witch doctors could ever have existed, when nothing that they proposed ever really worked -- or very little of it did.

....But then I began to think, what else is there that we believe? (And I thought then about the witch doctors, and how easy it would have been to check on them by noticing that nothing really worked.) So I found things that even more people believe, such as that we have some knowledge of how to educate. There are big schools of reading methods and mathematics methods, and so forth, but if you notice, you'll see the reading scores keep going down -- or hardly going up -- in spite of the fact that we continually use these same people to improve the methods. There's a witch doctor remedy that doesn't work. It ought to be looked into; how do they know that their method should work? Another example is how to treat criminals. We obviously have made no progress -- lots of theory, but no progress -- in decreasing the amount of crime by the method that we use to handle criminals.

Yet these things are said to be scientific. We study them. And I think ordinary people with commonsense ideas are intimidated by this pseudoscience. A teacher who has some good idea of how to teach her children to read is forced by the school system to do it some other way -- or is even fooled by the school system into thinking that her method is not necessarily a good one. Or a parent of bad boys, after disciplining them in one way or another, feels guilty for the rest of her life because she didn't do "the right thing", according to the experts.

So we really ought to look into theories that don't work, and science that isn't science.

I think the educational and psychological studies I mentioned are examples of what I would like to call cargo cult science. In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to make 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 to 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.

if you're doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid -- not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you've eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked -- to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can -- if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong -- to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.

In summary, the idea is to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgement in one particular direction or another.

The easiest way to explain this idea is to contrast it, for example, with advertising

So by Mann's very act of refusing to make the algorithms of his Hockey Stick fraud public or by refusing to say what experimental proof they have, or don't have of the radium being paint SEPA have proved that they are not scientists but merely advertising flacks doing cargo cult science. The only question remaining is whether, by the standards of advertising flacks their advertising is honest or dishonest.

Neil wrote...

Or creationism which is neither more nor less cargo cultism than the rest.

We creationists admit we are practicing a religion, the Global Whining fanatics pretend to be practicing science. Unlike Al Gore's pet theory Christianity, including creationism, can form the basis of a productive society. The strict Calvinist Puritans were able to carve out a new colony from a barren wilderness, something that would violate environmental laws nowadays, and that no ecobureaucrat could hope to equal.

As for the cargo cult meme, I briefly tried to attend college locally at a junior college and most of the beginning freshmen took anthropology as a first year course. I wouldn't be surprised if 50% of all American freshmen take the same course using the same book. Part of the book seeks to organize religions of the world and in the process depreciates the role of Christianity in forming the West.
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