Cargo Cult Science and the State

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 land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to imitate 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 like 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.

Now it behooves me, of course, to tell you what they’re missing.But it would be just about as difficult to explain to the South Sea Islanders how they have to arrange things so that they get some wealth in their system. It is not something simple like telling them how to improve the shapes of the earphones. But there is one feature I notice that is generally missing in cargo cult science. That is the idea that we all hope you have learned in studying science in school–we never explicitly say what this is, but just hope that you catch on by all the examples of scientific investigation. It is interesting, therefore, to bring it out now and speak of it explicitly. It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought 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: 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 try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.

Richard Feynman Cargo Cult Science

Last Friday an explosive bit of news swept the Internet. Someone had posted a giant zip file containing hundreds of emails, several data-sets and some software code online that appeared to have been authored by the Climate Research Unit of East Anglia University.

The CRU is the organization that compiles much of the data and analysis used in modern-day climate research. It is, at this point, impossible to calculate how many papers used data compiled by the Climate Research Unit.

Unfortunately, it appears that much of the data and certainly much of the analysis is unreliable; there are numerous gaps in the sparse documentary trail between raw data and the final results of the analysis, while the computer programs used to produce many of the datasets are buggy and are poorly understood.

Many of the emails focus on the efforts of Michael Mann and his fellow researches to prevent auditors like Michael McIntyre and Willis Eschenbach from gaining access to their raw data, attempts to pervert the peer review process to deny “skeptical” papers and theories legitimacy and discussions as to how best to “spin” results in order to promote politicians and the general public to react in a manner that they thought would be appropriate to the threat they perceived as being posed by global climate change.

This was as textbook a case of the Cargo Cult Science that Richard Feynmann warned about as one can ever expect to see, and the fact that the CRU team was not doing real science was apparent to many scientists familiar to their work, based on the misgivings hinted at in the email dump.

That being said, the process of scientific analysis being rather well developed – having been designed to arrive at truth by overcoming the natural human instincts at self-deception – we have to ask how could the process have broken down so spectacularly?

The answer lies, as it often does, it the corrupting intersection of universities and the government. In short, researchers in universities are trying to behave anti-competitively and have unconsciously made a deal with the devil with regards to using the government to get funds.

To understand what happened, we must first review what science is. Science is the systematic application of techniques that test theories describing systems producing observable phenomena through the collection of empirical measurements. It is decentralized, rather than a single authority coming to conclusions, anyone is free to make observations, generate theories and to come to conclusions concerning their accuracy and applicability. Moreover, the process is based on skeptical inquiry, assertions and claims are scrutinized by people who try to find holes or errors constantly.

The people who carry out scientific inquiry, scientists, generate, gather observations and test theories. These activities are documented and communicated to other scientists formally thorugh formal publication of papers. The process of formal publication requires anonymous reviewers of papers to approve of the paper prior to publication (a process that is as complex as that in any court of law and whose details are beyond the scope of this post). Scientists can incorporate the work of other scientists by citing their published papers. This decentralization and lack of authority is supposed to ensure that ideas are judged on their merits and not based on who asserts them.

The primary judgment of the quality of a scientist is his or her reputation. This inherently politicizes science since reputation is based on the perceptions of others. The history of science is legion with instances where people gained that perception through fakery and were eventually caught. Moreover, science requires resources. Since a scientist is not taking part in a income producing venture, per se, he or she must acquire their funds either by taking part in some income producing activity such as teaching at a university, or acquire a patron. Acquiring patrons is often highly dependent on not only the reputation of the scientist, but on the patron’s perception that the scientist will satisfy the patron’s goals in deciding to fund a scientist – hence the numerous studies calling into questions the link between smoking and lung cancer published by epidemiologists employed by tobacco companies.

Wen the patron is the government, the patronage is dependent on how well one pleases the civil servants and politicians who make the funding decisions. For politicians, a scientist who supplies them with dire warnings of emergencies that require heroic and visionary action are a godsend: they can pund the table and appear to be visionaries. For civil servants, the benefits of encouraging alarmist publications is simply the expanded power as funds are appropriated to cope with the emergency.

Moreover when government officials control the lion’s share of the funding, they are able to behave monopolisticaly, letting them down can doom one to poverty of teaching lots of classes with little money and time for research.

We will probably never know precisely why the senior staff at the Climate Research Unit decided to quit being scientists in order to take up the profession of Cargo Cult Scientist. It could be the celebrity of being known as leading researchers. It could be a genuine fear that if they didn’t lie, humanity would make the “wrong” decision and render the Earth uninhabitable. It could be a totalitarian desire to rework society according to blue-prints that were pleasing to them. It could be because they wanted the lucrative grant money. It could be that they feared being viewed as has-been or never-were hacks.

What we can tell, though, is that their fraud was predicated on their inexhaustible supply of grants from governments, grants that transferred an uninterruptible stream of taxes into their coffers. The system was such that these Cargo Cult scientists were able to establish themselves as authorities, and suborn the skeptical review of and replication of their work, and, for a time, act in an environment that lacked negative consequences for their misconduct. That is, until someone blew the whistle.

I am an anarcho-capitalist living just west of Boston Massachussetts. I am married, have two children, and am trying to start my own computer consulting company.
  • Jack Poynter

    Good post. Very true, every word of it. But the reason Jones and company are behaving the way they are, is:
    1. They think science is competitive (that’s your point,) and
    2. They have an advertising agency to direct their actions.

    As we used to say when I was in the USMC, many long years ago, “I swear I’m not making this up.” Or, at least, that’s the expurgated version.


    The company’s name is Futerra, their motto is “We’ve been helping you save the planet for over eight years.”

    When they make the movie, they’ll be wishing Peter Sellers was still around.

    BTW, Richard Feynman is my hero. Thanks for the quote and the link.