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The Difference between ‘True Science’ and ‘Cargo-Cult Science’

“Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts” is how the great Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman defined science.

by
Frank J. Tipler

Bio

July 27, 2010 - 12:00 am
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Appeal to authority establishes nothing. “Experts” who claim otherwise are thereby showing themselves to be non-experts. The University of Virginia faculty members who supported this anti-science resolution have shown themselves to be unworthy to teach at an American university. They have shown themselves to have no understanding of the meaning of the word “scholarship.”

There are all too many such professors at the leading American universities. Which is why Feynman defined science to be a belief in the ignorance of such people. They are ignorant. Feynman used the expression “cargo-cult science” to describe the “science” done by such people. In the South Pacific during the Second World War, the locals noticed that cargo planes would fly into airports that had been established on their islands, and unload vast amounts of goodies. The natives wanted the wealth too, so they hacked runways out of the jungle, made “radar antennas” out of wood, and sat at “radio sets” they had also fashioned out of wood. To their eyes, it looked like the real thing, but alas, no planes arrived with cargo. The native “cargo-cult” airport had the superficial appearance of an airport, but not the reality. Many areas of “science” today have the superficial appearance of true science, but not the reality.  Climate “science” is an example.

How does one distinguish between science and pseudoscience, between true science and cargo-cult science?  Many believe that Karl Popper’s falsifiability criterion provides it, but Popper’s criterion has numerous difficulties, which philosophers have pointed out. Feynman has provided a much better way to test for true science in his essay “Cargo-Cult Science”:

… there is one feature I notice that is generally missing in cargo cult science.  … 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.

Compare Feynman’s scientific integrity with the continual attempts by the leaders of climate “science” to prevent skeptics from checking their data. True scientists would be extremely pleased to provide all raw data, and they would make the data available to all on the Internet. A state attorney general would not have to file suit to make them disgorge.

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Frank J. Tipler is Professor of Mathematical Physics at Tulane University. He is the co-author of The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (Oxford University Press) and the author of The Physics of Immortality and The Physics of Christianity both published by Doubleday.
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