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Why should we worry?

I have argued that the scientific method provides an excellent guideline for studying the world around us. It is, of course, conceivable that there are other ``planes of thought'' but their presence and properties, and what may happen in them is a matter of belief.

Through time ``alternative'' sciences regularly rise their head and are debunked. One might be bothered about their presence since it does say something less than flattering about human psychology. But even if one defends these beliefs on the basis of free speech, one should be aware that they sometimes represent more than idle talk. For example, there is this recent news article


It truly is amazing that people will even consider this statement. In fact it is not dismissed because it refers to science, but imagine a similar situation where ``really important matters'' are involved, such as money. suppose a banker were to empty an account and claim that, even though there is no money left, the owner of the account is just as rich because his bank book still ``remembers'' the balance and that this miraculous memory of wealth past can be used to ``cure'' the owner's credit-card balance. Without a doubt this banker would end up in jail or in the loony bin.

Various tests using the scientific method have proven the fallacy of the ``water with deep memory'' theory. Yet these items are seriously considered and sometimes funded by Congress, diverting monies from important programs such as education. In the OAM has had an interesting and controversial history  [*], despite this it has a budget of $12 million; in 1993-1994 it dispersed about 10% of this in grants.


This is not a unique occurrence. There are many many claims which use high-sounding scientific jargon; for example J. Randi [*] mentions that the NIH Office of Alternative Medicine has given credence to such claims as a cure for multiple sclerosis (despite the fact that the staff must know there is no such thing). When such startling claims are investigated, they are found to be merely ridiculous statements. If you are curious about these I provide a list of WWW sites for your amusement

And yes, in case you are wondering, some of these people are serious.

It is important to differentiate between these ``pseudo-scientific'' creations and true science-based developments. Pseudo-science is either not falsifiable or its results cannot be reproduced in a laboratory. If anything like this were to happen to a scientific hypothesis it would be dismissed forthright independently of the, belief, feelings, etc. of the researchers.

Below I present excerpts from an essay by R. Feynman on this same issue [*].


Cargo Cult Science (excerpts)

by Richard Feynman


During the Middle Ages there were all kinds of crazy ideas, such as that a piece of of rhinoceros horn would increase potency. Then a method was discovered for separating the ideas-which was to try one to see if it worked, and if it didn't work, to eliminate it. This method became organized, of course, into science. And it developed very well, so that we are now in the scientific age. It is such a scientific age, in fact, that we have difficulty in understanding how witch doctors could ever have existed, when nothing that they proposed ever really worked-or very little of it did.

But even today I meet lots of people who sooner or later get me into a conversation about UFO's, or astrology, or some form of mysticism, expanded consciousness, new types of awareness, ESP, and so forth. And I've concluded that it's not a scientific world.

Most people believe so many wonderful things that I decided to investigate why they did. And what has been referred to as my curiosity for investigation has landed me in a difficulty where I found so much junk that I'm overwhelmed. First I started out by investigating various ideas of mysticism and mystic experiences. I went into isolation tanks and got many hours of hallucinations, so I know something about that. Then I went to Esalen, which is a hotbed of this kind of thought (it's a wonderful place; you should go visit there). Then I became overwhelmed. I didn't realize how MUCH there was.

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I also looked into extrasensory perception, and PSI phenomena, and the latest craze there was Uri Geller, a man who is supposed to be able to bend keys by rubbing them with his finger. So I went to his hotel room, on his invitation, to see a demonstration of both mind reading and bending keys. He didn't do any mind reading that succeeded; nobody can read my mind, I guess. And my boy held a key and Geller rubbed it, and nothing happened. Then he told us it works better under water, and so you can picture all of us standing in the bathroom with the water turned on and the key under it, and him rubbing the key with his finger. Nothing happened. So I was unable to investigate that phenomenon.

But then I began to think, what else is there that we believe? (And I thought then about the witch doctors, and how easy it would have been to check on them by noticing that nothing really worked.) So I found things that even more people believe, such as that we have some knowledge of how to educate. There are big schools of reading methods and mathematics methods, and so forth, but if you notice, you'll see the reading scores keep going down-or hardly going up-in spite of the fact that we continually use these same people to improve the methods. There's a witch doctor remedy that doesn't work. It ought to be looked into; how do they know that their method should work? Another example is how to treat criminals. We obviously have made no progress-lots of theory, but no progress-in decreasing the amount of crime by the method that we use to handle criminals.

Yet these things are said to be scientific. We study them. And I think ordinary people with common sense ideas are intimidated by this pseudo-science. A teacher who has some good idea of how to teach her children to read is forced by the school system to do it some other way-or is even fooled by the school system into thinking that her method is not necessarily a good one. Or a parent of bad boys, after disciplining them in one way or another, feels guilty for the rest of her life because she didn't do ``the right thing'', according to the experts.

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.

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 say explicitly 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 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.

The easiest way to explain this idea is to contrast it, for example, with advertising. Last night I heard that Wesson oil doesn't soak through food. Well, that's true. It's not dishonest; but the thing I'm talking about is not just a matter of not being dishonest; it's a matter of scientific integrity, which is another level. The fact that should be added to that advertising statement is that no oils soak through food, if operated at a certain temperature. If operated at another temperature, they all will-including Wesson oil. So it's the implication which has been conveyed, not the fact, which is true, and the difference is what we have to deal with.

We've learned from experience that the truth will come out. Other experimenters will repeat your experiment and find out whether you were wrong or right. 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 ``alternative science''.

I would like to add something that's not essential to the science, but something I kind of believe, which is that you should not fool the layman when you're talking as a scientist. I'm talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you're maybe wrong, that you ought to have when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as scientists, certainly to other scientists, and I think to laymen.

For example, I was a little surprised when I was talking to a friend who was going to go on the radio. He does work on cosmology and astronomy, and he wondered how he would explain what the applications of his work were. ``Well,'' I said, ``there aren't any.'' He said, ``Yes, but then we won't get support for more research of this kind.'' I think that's kind of dishonest. If you're representing yourself as a scientist, then you should explain to the layman what you're doing- and if they don't support you under those circumstances, then that's their decision.

One example of the principle is this: If you've made up your mind to test a theory, or you want to explain some idea, you should always decide to publish it whichever way it comes out. If we only publish results of a certain kind, we can make the argument look good. We must publish BOTH kinds of results.

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.


next up previous contents
Next: Large numbers Up: The scientific method Previous: Are scientists wearing blinkers?
Jose Wudka
9/24/1998