Wed, 23/Aug/2017 11:41

Cargo Cult Science

As I sat in a conference session today there were two talks (back to back) in which there was some repudiations. The first speaker blasted the second speakers methods and results. The second speaker then repudiated the first speaker. There must be some bad feeling between the two. I do not know the nature of their relationship nor do I know, not more than casual acquaintance, either speaker. It appears to me that the issue could be solved by some humility on both their parts. This would then cause them to look a bit closer at their respective methods and try to understand each other rather than attack. 

 

I also sat in three talks in a row where the speakers were from the same agency purporting a certain amazing result. The data they used to achieve their results is not in the public domain, despite a promise to make it available more than a year previously. At the end of each talk questions were put to the respective speaker regarding some point of the results. Each of the three speakers did not answer any of the questions. Perhaps the questions were not understood.

 

Last month I was reading an article in Physics Today which in part was commemorating the 50th anniversary of the first laser by T.H. Maiman. It appears that, while he was the first to build the laser, he did not fully divulge his work so that it could be duplicated and proven. Just after his announcement (without demonstration), some researchers at Bell labs tried to duplicate his work. They did not exactly know his process and had to figure it out on their own. They unknowingly built a much better instrument. They then did some additional tests to verify their work. Later demonstrating it for the press to see and published details of their work. Maiman, like Ponds and Fleishman, let the promise of fame get in the way of giving full rigor and integrity to their efforts. 

 

I read a CalTech commencement address given by Richard Feynman in 1972. He talks about science that isnt science and theories that dont work. He talked about the so called Cargo Cults that spread among the islands of the South Pacific after WWII. scientific integrity and humility. Do we perpetuate Cargo Cult Science? He said

  Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You do the best you can -- if you know anythig 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 put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you wnat 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 somethign else come out right, in addition. 

 

He then proceeds to give the example of an advertisement for oil claiming that it will not soak into food. While this is not strictly dishonest it omits the fact that all oils respond the same way. The implication is that only Wesson oil is better. The same goes for scientific theories. We must be humble enough to recognize we may be wrong. That is the point of scientific theory, to hypothesize and then test it again and again. When it fails investigate why and either make adjustments to the hypothesis or discard it in favor of a better understanding. There should be no ego nor opinion in this process. 

 

I make a clarion call to all scientists to let go of their egos. Let us all work for the real understanding of phenomena. Let us look deeply into topics as Dr. Feynman suggests and not compromise our results with opinion, thrist for fame, nor the desire to push a certain agenda.





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