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Does Science Have a “Cargo Cult” Crisis?

Ceremonial cross of John Frum cargo cult, Tanna island, New Hebrides (now Vanuatu), 1967.

Responding to some of the more ridiculous paeans to science expressed at the recent “Science March,” Jeremy Samuel Faust compares the attitudes of these science marchers to what physicist Richard Feynman labeled “cargo cult science.” The “cargo cult” metaphor has long been used to criticize the kind of pseudoscientific and even cult-like reverence for scientific authority that we often see in modern society, as well as to emphasize the need for more skepticism of scientists in the spirit of the true scientific method. But a closer look at the context of Feynman’s remarks suggests a different interpretation of what cargo cults might show us about the scientific enterprise.

For present purposes we can ignore the nuances of the actual beliefs and practices of the Melanesian people to which Feynman refers in his famous 1974 Caltech address, and just focus on his (likely caricatured) description:

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 make 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.

Feynman thought he saw a similar dynamic in the work of many who claim to be doing science, including cranks studying extrasensory perception, but also mainstream psychologists.

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.

What cargo cult scientists are missing is “a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty.” Having this virtue of scientific integrity means following the scientific method: conducting rigorously controlled experiments and following the data wherever they lead. Thus while some of Feynman’s examples of cargo cult scientists may have the trappings of good scientists — e.g., they are professors of psychology at major universities — they lack the true spirit of science. In particular, they are too beholden to their theories to follow the observational evidence wherever it leads.

The cargo cult story offers what philosophers of science call a “demarcation criterion” for science, a feature of genuine science that sets it apart from mere pseudoscience. However, it’s worth looking back at the cargo cults themselves to see precisely what they were missing. These groups apparently did their best to imitate the methodology of the Westerners who imported goods using airstrips. But even if we suppose the cargo cultists had done a better job — and built workable airfields with actual lights and radios, rather than imitations using fires and pieces of bamboo — would that have allowed them to acquire the cargo they sought?

No airfield would have delivered the goods unless the cargo cultists had also contacted the people in other parts of the world and convinced them to sell or give them the cargo. In other words, what the cargo cultists really needed was to form relationships with other people and to participate in institutions such as the global marketplace. Trading is a practice that depends on relationships and institutions; it is obviously impossible for any individual to do it alone, whatever virtues or technical skills and knowledge he or she might possess.

Thinking about the cargo cult example in this way suggests a different kind of demarcation criterion for science: being a genuine scientist means having the right kinds of relationships with other scientists and participating in scientific institutions, such as universities, national academies, peer-reviewed journals, and the like. This would imply that we consider parapsychologists cranks not because they believe stupid things or because their ideas are unfalsifiable or because they lack honesty and integrity, but because they publish their results on late-night TV shows or obscure blogs, for instance, rather than genuine peer-reviewed journals. In other words, we know parapsychologists aren’t scientists because rather than participating in reputable scientific institutions and associations, they have their own fringe alternative publications and groups.

Thinking Institutionally
This way of demarcating science from pseudoscience appears to have the disturbing implication that scientific institutions can arbitrarily define what makes good science, reducing science to what philosopher of science Imre Lakatos called “mob psychology.” The classic example of scientific institutions getting things drastically wrong is the way Soviet authorities denied and suppressed Gregor Mendel’s theories of inheritance in favor of the crackpot views of Trofim Lysenko. To take a more contemporary example, consider fields, such as social psychology, which, however respectable as academic disciplines, are beset with shoddy findings and bogus theories. If science is defined as a social institution, how can there be rational standards for criticizing such scientific authorities?

Looking back at the cargo-cult metaphor can help show why these fears might be overstated. It’s true that genuine trade and commerce depend on institutions. But those institutions are hardly above criticism. The World Trade Organization is regularly protested by activists for being unfair to the poor, as are numerous companies for their trade and labor practices. Whether or not these activists are mistaken about the injustice of free trade, it would be absurd to defend the WTO or, say, Nike by responding that these institutions are socially constructed and therefore get to make their own rules.

A similar point can be made about scientific institutions. It’s necessary to have universities, scientific journals, and the like in order to organize and govern scientific practice. Individual scientists — even if possessed of honesty and integrity and rigorous about following the scientific method — won’t uncover much knowledge without the kind of cooperation made possible by these institutions. But it does not follow that these institutions are above criticism.

In light of the so-called “replication crisis,” it may be that social psychology does not demand enough replication before accepting new results. This is a criticism of social psychology as a discipline, one that calls for institutional reform. From this point of view, the replication crisis is a problem not with individual scientists so much as the journals, grant-making agencies, and universities — the institutions — that publish, fund, evaluate, and encourage research projects. The problems won’t be fixed merely by demanding more honesty or integrity of individual scientists or even demarcating the essence of science, as Feynman attempted to do. On the contrary, what’s needed is a kind of political project aimed at changing the way these scientific institutions operate.

Though Feynman’s focus on individual character traits helps to democratize science by making the standards for judging scientific rigor the familiar virtues of honesty and integrity, such a focus on individuals ignores the important social dimensions of science. Reforming scientific institutions in ways that make them effective at encouraging good science is not as easy as calling out individual scientists for not rigidly following a simplistic version of the scientific method. But that’s what we will have to do if we want science to continue to produce useful knowledge.