Cargo cult science

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The term cargo cult science refers to an analogy between certain fields of research in the sciences, and cargo cults—i.e. the anthropological phenomenon of some primitive tribes in which the tribe 1) regards advanced peoples as angels whose purpose is to deliver goods (cf. first contact), and 2) regards some mimicry or pantomime of their own as functionally relevant to or causal for the delivery of such goods.

The term cargo cult science was first used by the physicist Richard Feynman during his commencement address at the California Institute of Technology, United States, in 1974, to negatively characterize research in the soft sciences (psychology and psychiatry in particular) - arguing that they have the semblance of being scientific, but are missing "a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty".


The speech

The speech is reproduced in the book Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! and on many web sites. He 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 first of all 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 that "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.

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