Cargo Cult Politics

May 22, 2008

Richard Feynman was a theoretical physicist who shared in the 1965 Nobel prize for his mathematical formulations relating to sub-atomic particle interactions. He was for awhile a professor at Cornell; was offered a professorship at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies, where Einstein was a member of the faculty; but instead chose to take a position at sunny Caltech, where he was to do his greatest work. Perhaps you recall the stir Feynman caused when, as a member of the Roger Commission investigating the 1986 Challenger disaster, he performed his on-camera experiment demonstrating the fragility of the booster o-ring material at and below freezing temperatures. All he needed was a glass of ice water and a sample of the ring material to illustrate the folly of having launched the shuttle in sub-freezing temperatures – against the advice of engineers, by the way. Feynman died in 1988.

“Cargo cult science” is a term coined by Feynman in conjunction with his commencement address to the Caltech graduating class of 1974. His personal investigations into a number of popular paranormal fads, along with his considerations regarding “modern” theories of education and of criminal rehabilitation, led him to the following conclusion:

So we really ought to look into theories that don’t work, and science that isn’t science.

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 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 to 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.

He goes on to explain wherein the problem lies:

… But 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.

I can only imagine what he might have to say about Al Gore and his “scientific consensus” regarding “global warming,” now recast as “climate change” since there seems to have been a pause in the “warming” bit. Today’s politics, and its deliberate misuse of “science” and “new studies,” seem to not permit, let alone reward, any sort of “utter honesty” or “leaning over backwards” when legislating law, administering policy, reporting the news, or while truth searching at university. Certainty is the watchword. Doubt verboten.

One seemingly unanswerable question is how much of this nonsense is really cargo-cultism, that is, ignorance, and how much is obfuscation or deliberate deception? Are the political, educational and punditry high priests and priestesses true believers? Or do they just perpetuate the myths to perpetuate themselves? Is there a way to tell? To distinguish between the cultists and those who are not? Would it make any difference if we could? Questions, I suppose, without answers.

Feynman may provide a bit of one possible answer when he cautions:

… Nature’s phenomena will agree or they’ll disagree with your theory. And, although you may gain some temporary fame and excitement, you will not gain a good reputation as a scientist if you haven’t tried to be very careful in this kind of work. And it’s this type of integrity, this kind of care not to fool yourself, that is missing to a large extent in much of the research in cargo cult science.

When it comes to cargo cult politics, such prudence seems in short supply. Fooling oneself is more likely par for this course.

The American electorate seems to have fashioned itself into two large political cargo cults. We have the forms – elections, representatives, courts – the appurtenances of democracy. But judging from the current economic chaos and its concomitant middle class angst, the dismay of conservatives, as well as what seems a perpetual leftist hostile rant, all we seem capable of is fashioning more form. More law, more regulation, more studies, more Congressional testimony… more, more, more. Is it time for less? Is it time to stop being fooled? Whether by ourselves or our cargo cult leaders? Who, in turn, may very well themselves be fooled?

Feynman concluded:

So I have just one wish for you — the good luck to be somewhere where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have described, and where you do not feel forced by a need to maintain your position in the organization, or financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity. May you have that freedom.

Do you? Do I? I certainly hope so. But I try not to fool myself and thus do I wonder.