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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

“Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts” is how the great Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman defined science in his article “What is Science?” Feynman emphasized this definition by repeating it in a stand-alone sentence in extra large typeface in his article.  (Feynman’s essay is available online, but behind a subscription wall: The Physics Teacher (1969) volume 7, starting page 313.)

Immediately after his definition of science, Feynman wrote: “When someone says, ‘Science teaches such and such,’ he is using the word incorrectly. Science doesn’t teach anything; experience teaches it. If they say to you, ‘Science has shown such and such,’ you should ask, ‘How does science show it? How did the scientists find out? How? What? Where?’ It should not be ‘science has shown.’ And you have as much right as anyone else, upon hearing about the experiments (but be patient and listen to all the evidence) to judge whether a sensible conclusion has been arrived at.”

And I say, Amen. Notice that “you” is the average person. You have the right to hear the evidence, and you have the right to judge whether the evidence supports the conclusion. We now use the phrase “scientific consensus,” or “peer review,” rather than “science has shown.” By whatever name, the idea is balderdash. Feynman was absolutely correct.

When the attorney general of Virginia sued to force Michael Mann of “hockey stick” fame to provide the raw data he used, and the complete computer program used to analyze the data, so that “you” could decide, the Faculty Senate of the University of Virginia (where Mann was a professor at the time he defended the hockey stick) declared this request — Feynman’s request — to be an outrage. You peons, the Faculty Senate decreed, must simply accept the conclusions of any “scientific endeavor that has satisfied peer review standards.” Feynman’s — and the attorney general’s and my own and other scientists’ — request for the raw data, so we can “judge whether a sensible conclusion has been arrived at,” would, according to the Faculty Senate, “send a chilling message to scientists … and indeed scholars in any discipline.”

According the Faculty Senate of the University of Virginia, “science,” and indeed “scholarship” in general, is no longer an attempt to establish truth by replicable experiment, or by looking at evidence that can be checked by anyone. “Truth” is now to be established by the decree of powerful authority, by “peer review.” Wasn’t the whole point of the Enlightenment to avoid exactly this?

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.

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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