Sunday, February 18, 2007

Cargo cults

In 1974, Richard Feynman gave a classic commencement lecture at Caltech, reproduced as the chapter "Cargo Cult Science" in his book Surely you're joking, Mr Feynman! (and available online here). The talk covered the scientific method and various forms of pseudoscience that omit "something essential":
"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."

Well, pseudoscience is still alive and well, and so, it seems, are some of those cargo cults.

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