Cargo Cult Science

During the Middle Ages there were all kinds of crazy ideas, such as that a piece of rhinoceros horn would increase potency and many more. But even today there are lots of people who sooner or later got into a conversation about UFO’s, or astrology, or some form of mysticism, expanded consciousness, new types of awareness, ESP, and so forth which means it’s not a scientific world.

Nobel-winner physicist Richard Feynman coined the term ‘cargo cult science’ to describe all kinds of pseudoscience that passed off for science over the ages — ancient superstitions, black magic, voodoo, witch doctors, astrology, mind reading, ESP (extrasensory perception), expanded consciousness, aphrodisiacs made from rhino horns, and other debatable ideas.

He spoke of a ‘Cargo Cult’ of people, the South Sea islanders in the Pacific, who, during the world war, had seen planes landing and delivering cargos. After the war, they wanted to receive similar gifts from the skies. So they prepared landing strips to resemble runways, set up flares on either side, made wood pieces that looked like headphones, stuck bamboo stakes to resemble antennas, and waited for planes to land to deliver the goodies, the cargo. They waited and waited and repeated their exercise by adjusting the sticks and flares but the planes did not land. They were missing something. They did everything right. But there were no planes. They were changing the form but not the substance.

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We really ought to look into theories that don’t work, and science that isn’t science. “Cargo cult science” was his phrase for research that mimicked science. Despite never seeming to yield verifiable results, it garnered public acceptance because it seemed to possess the semblance of rigorous methodology.

Richard Feynman

The first principle by Feynman is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.  So you have to be very careful about that.  After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists.  You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that. 

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.

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