Cargo Cult Science

I have quite vivid memories of sitting in front of the (black and white) television as a child, watching documentaries about the cargo cults of the Pacific islands. They have largely faded away and I suspect that many of our students and younger researchers have never heard of them, but cargo cults were a big deal at one time. Let me explain.

While there were earlier examples, cargo cults especially sprang up in Melanesia towards the end of and shortly after World War II. The islands of Melanesia were populated by what we would have then called ‘primitive’ tribes who had minimal contact with the outside world. In particular, they had virtually no experience with manufactured goods. And then World War II came along. Soldiers arrived, often first by airdrop. Airfields were constructed, and then the cargo planes began to land. With them, the soldiers brought all sorts of manufactured goods – metal knives, glass bottles, that sort of thing – and naturally some of these precious items found their way into the hands of the local tribespeople. These miraculous goods could only have come from the gods, and the airfields and airplanes were the means of transporting them to earth. But then the war ended, the soldiers went away, the airfields became overgrown, and of course there were not more wonderous gifts from the gods.

The tribespeople, however, formulated what they thought was the solution to the loss of their portal to the gods – they built their own approximations of airfields. Often encouraged by local cult leaders, they stamped down grass to make runways, constructed mock control towers out of bamboo and grass, and some people even put on mock headsets made out of coconut shells and other bits and pieces. The premise of the cults was that if you built something that looked like an airfield, you would reap the rewards that previously came with real airfields. I guess you see where this is going.

I was reminded of all of this when a friend recently sent me a copy of the speech that physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman gave to the 1974 graduating class at Cal Tech. In that speech, Feynman coined the expression ‘cargo cult science.’ Essentially, he was referring to the practice of approximating science in order to accrue the benefits normally earned through conducting real science. Far from being an oddity, however, cargo cult science is a feature of the modern research enterprise and of society at large. All too often, researchers are compelled, or feel they are compelled, to put on the theatre of research – to produce our version of the mock airfield. In practical terms, this may involve putting in a lacklustre grant application with no intention of success, going to a conference but not actually showing up at most of the presentations, or performing a trivial study which does not address a question of any reasonable importance. By doing what looks a lot like science, we hope – and, unlike the adherents of the cargo cults, usually succeed – in accruing at least some of the benefits earned by better scientists. We get to keep our salaries and many of the other benefits that go along with being recognized as a researcher.

The system appears to be working, but we have to feel that eventually there will be an accounting. In any event, it must be worth looking at our own research careers and asking ‘how much of this is science and how much is just an approximation?’

In a later blog, I would like to talk about some of the stimulating papers of John Ioannidis who has provided some provocative answers to these questions.

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