"More on the crisis in research: Feynman on 'cargo cult science'"
October 28th, 2013
After reading my weekend column about the crisis in life science research, Hajime Hoji of USC's linguistics department reminded me of the late Richard Feynman's brilliant deconstruction of the flaws and pitfalls of science as it's done in the modern age.
"Cargo Cult Science" was adapted from Feynman's 1974 commencement speech at Caltech, where his spirit reigns as one of that institution's two certified saints. (The other is Robert A. Millikan, Caltech's first president.) The text appears in his 1985 book, "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" Here are some excerpts, but the talk is worth reading in its entirety, both for Feynman's lucid, engaging style and the depth of his thinking.
In the talk, Feynman discussed how much laypersons and scientists themselves take for granted about research results. "We really ought to look into theories that don't work, and science that isn't science," he said. "Cargo cult science" was his term for research that never seemed to yield provable results, but acquired public acceptance because they possessed the veneer of rigorous methodology.
What cargo cult science lacked was something that, he observed, was never actually taught to Caltech students. "It's a kind of scientific integrity...that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty--a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, 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....Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them....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."
One suspects that Feynman, who died in 1988, would be appalled by the current standards of research publication, which critics say favor audacious claims instead of the painstaking, judicious marshaling of evidence he advocated. It's even more striking today to ponder his confidence in science's ability to weed out factitious or mistaken findings.
"We've learned from experience that the truth will come out," he told the students. "Other experimenters will repeat your experiment and find out whether you were wrong or right.... 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."
The truth is that the testing of experimental results by other experimenters is exactly what may be lacking in today's publication-driven science world. And as some scientists recognize, getting a paper published in a prestigious journal can do a great deal for one's reputation, even if it's later shown to be wrong.
Even then, Feynman acknowledged that desperation for research funding was driving a tendency by scientists to hype the applications of their work. Otherwise, a friend told him, "we won't get support for more research of this kind." Feynman's reaction was characteristically blunt. "I think that's kind of dishonest," he said.