Richard Feynman on Cargo Cult Science and the Importance of Integrity

Richard Feynman’s Caltech commencement address given in 1974 is titled “Cargo Cult Science.” In it, he describes his experience in experimenting with various pseudoscience trends (extrasensory perception, PSI phenomena, and so on) and explains the difference between this “cargo cult science” and real science. It’s a fascinating read in its entirety. The story actually appears in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character), which I highly recommend reading.

One notable passage I wanted to highlight was Feynman recounting of an experiment that was excellent scientific work:

There have been many experiments running rats through all kinds of mazes, and so on–with little clear result. But in 1937 a man named Young did a very interesting one. He had a long corridor with doors all along one side where the rats came in, and doors along the other side where the food was. He wanted to see if he could train the rats to go in at the third door down from wherever he started them off. No. The rats went immediately to the door where the food had been the time before.

The question was, how did the rats know, because the corridor was so beautifully built and so uniform, that this was the same door as before? Obviously there was something about the door that was different from the other doors. So he painted the doors very carefully, arranging the textures on the faces of the doors exactly the same. Still the rats could tell. Then he thought maybe the rats were smelling the food, so he used chemicals to change the smell after each run. Still the rats could tell. Then he realized the rats might be able to tell by seeing the lights and the arrangement in the laboratory like any commonsense person. So he covered the corridor, and still the rats could tell.

He finally found that they could tell by the way the floor sounded when they ran over it. And he could only fix that by putting his corridor in sand. So he covered one after another of all possible clues and finally was able to fool the rats so that they had to learn to go in the third door. If he relaxed any of his conditions, the rats could tell.

Now, from a scientific standpoint, that is an A-number-one experiment. That is the experiment that makes rat-running experiments sensible, because it uncovers that clues that the rat is really using– not what you think it’s using. And that is the experiment that tells exactly what conditions you have to use in order to be careful and control everything in an experiment with rat-running.

I looked up the subsequent history of this research. The next experiment, and the one after that, never referred to Mr. Young. They never used any of his criteria of putting the corridor on sand, or being very careful. They just went right on running the rats in the same old way, and paid no attention to the great discoveries of Mr. Young, and his papers are not referred to, because he didn’t discover anything about the rats. In fact, he discovered all the things you have to do to discover something about rats. But not paying attention to experiments like that is a characteristic example of cargo cult science.

Feynman’s closing remark on what is truly important—no matter where you work—is your integrity. Because that’s something that cannot be taken away from you:

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.

Fascinating read.

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Further reading: why Richard Feynman is my favourite scientist.

(via @Longform)

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